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‘Tower Heist’ and ‘Margin Call’: Good Investments or Rip-offs?

by on November 7, 2011

Amateur thieves Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy try to rob from the rich, while Wall Street sharks Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons try to avoid becoming poor. Which tale deserves your movie dollar? Would you pay $60 to see either one at home?

Bruce Fretts: Everybody must be occupying Wall Street, because they’re certainly not occupying theaters. The new Ben Stiller–Eddie Murphy caper Tower Heist got stomped by Puss in Boots, and the makers of the financial thriller Margin Call hedged their bets by releasing it on VOD the same day as in theaters. The question is, Bret: Are these stock-market movies too full of bull to bear?

Bret Watson: I got my money’s worth investing $8 on video on demand to see Margin Call—it’s one of my favorite movies of the year. As for Tower Heist, it’s not a towering entertainment, but I found it amiable fun anyway. You?

Bruce: I felt like I was the investor who’d gotten ripped off after I saw both of these movies. Tower Heist was, like In Time, another movie as generic as its title, and while I admired the style and cast of Margin Call, it left me shrugging. But I have no interest in high finance. As anyone who’s seen my bank account statements lately could tell you.

Bret: Tower Heist is only about high finance to the extent that the deliciously slick and casually corrupt Alan Alda plays an unrepentant Madoff-like crook whose victims include the staff of a posh residential tower. The movie’s chief merit is its cast of seasoned pros, who rise above the pulled-punch lines. Tower Heist tries to be a zanier Ocean’s 11, but this one doesn’t go to 11. It’s not as clever and takes too long to get into gear. And Ben Stiller is no George Clooney.

Bruce: I agree that Alda is terrific—he’s perfectly slimy as a heartless tycoon who condescendingly maintains his regular-guy airs. But the movie’s just not funny. Did you laugh even once during this “comedy”? You’d think a script with five credited writers would have at least one good joke. I mean, there’s only two of us and we always come up with at least one. Sometimes even two!

Bret: Two? You must be thinking of the review of Priest I did with Nancy Bilyeau. I think Heist made me laugh once, or maybe it was my stomach gurgling, not sure. My wife liked the ski-hats gag. There were a few chuckles in our theater, and there’s always that one guy who guffaws because, dammitall, he came to laugh whether the film’s funny or not! What humor there is comes from Eddie Murphy’s facial expressions, or the way Matthew Broderick or Michael Peña put a spin on a line.

Bruce: Broderick and Peña are fine, but Stiller and Murphy suck the air out of every scene—Stiller does his standard (and tired) mildly pissed-off routine, while Murphy seems genuinely angry that he’s back to playing another fast-talking street criminal like he did in the vastly superior 48 HRS. and Trading Places nearly 30 years ago.

Bret: I thought he was funnier than he’s been since the original Shrek. Imagine telling the young Eddie Murphy of the standup movie Raw that he’d have his biggest success as a talking donkey in a kids’ movie.

Bruce: Don’t talk smack about Donkey! That’s a great comic character. But after Murphy got an Oscar nomination for his dramatic performance in Dreamgirls, I would’ve thought he’d move his career forward, not slam it into reverse. And aside from Stiller’s pathetic attempt at a “working-class” accent, how is this character different from the one he plays in the Focker movies? Or his other Focking movies?

Bret: Stiller waters run shallow.

Bruce: I’m not surprised people aren’t paying to see this flick in theaters. I wonder if Universal honcho Ron Meyer will add this to his list of crappy films his studio has released, along with Cowboys and Aliens. And can you believe they were planning on charging people $59.99 to watch Tower Heist at home three weeks after it was released to theaters, before exhibitors shamed them out of the plan? Now that would’ve been a heist.

Bret: I saw it Saturday evening at my local theater and it was fairly packed—enough to make my wife grouse about the person kicking her seat and the teenager across the aisle making a POCK POCK POCK sound by tapping the end of a straw in his mouth. If we’d paid sixty bucks, there would have been curses and oaths of vengeance upon our lips. But at least for $60 we wouldn’t have had to put up with other people.

Bruce: VOD is a viable option for misanthropes and hermits, but don’t you think it robs some of the experience of seeing a movie? I watched Margin Call at home as well, and its eerie atmosphere, near-total lack of music and sleek, night-in-the-city visuals would’ve been far more effective in a theater. Although I’m still recovering from seeing Zachary Quinto’s Vulcan eyebrows in IMAX in Star Trek—I’m not ready to see them blown up on the big screen again.

Bret: My theory is that your brain quickly adjusts to whatever size a screen is. You become immersed in the image and the screen expands to fill your eyes, so to speak. With a decent TV I don’t need a billboard-size screen. Bruce, maybe you just need a bigger home TV. It’s time to replace your cathode-ray-tube Zenith. Wait till you see TV in color—you’ll love it!

Bruce: I finally did go HD a year or so ago. Just in time to see Andy Rooney’s eyebrows in all their glory. You like watching movies at home because you can control the volume and don’t have to wear your noise-canceling headphones. I just wish they made crap-canceling headphones.

Bret: Battling the crowds at a dodecaplex is a nuisance. Also, at home soda doesn’t cost $5 per thimble. Or in your case, $20 for a tub.

Bruce: Hey, who are you calling a tub? So what did you like about Margarine—er, I mean, Margin Call? Or, as I like to call it, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better?

Bret: It’s a fascinating behind-the-curtain drama about people in high finance with low values—other than make money at all costs, especially if you can pass along the costs. When they realize their investing models are based on crap assumptions, they have to make harrowing decisions. What do you do when you realize your plane’s going to crash, you’re to blame, and there are only a handful of parachutes? The acting alone is gripping: Kevin Spacey delivers what may be my favorite movie line of 2001, in one boardroom scene, when he says, in a sublime mix of incredulity and disgust, “What?

Bruce: Spacey’s great, as are Jeremy Irons and Stanley Tucci. (Penn Badgley and Demi Moore? Not so much.) But nothing surprising happens; the movie is a dog-bites-man story. Or, given the movie’s cryptic last scene—SPOILER ALERT!—a man-buries-dog story.

Bret: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Not the what but the how. In Greek tragedy, everyone knows the ending. In most movies, you know the ending. In Margin Call, it’s the steps taken, the confrontations, the decisions along the way that captivate. And since the movie accurately encapsulates recent events, it shows you how bad deals went down. I was primed to love it, since I just read a spectacular, fascinating, funny, terrifying book about the global financial woes, Boomerang, by Michael Lewis (of Moneyball fame). Mind you, I missed the movie’s ending because I forgot that you have a limited time to watch video on demand—which used to be called pay-per-view until the marketing wizards zapped the phrase into something more palatable.

Bruce: But don’t you think you would’ve enjoyed it even more in a theater? Then again, you do have to wear pants…

Bret: Pants are overrated.

Talk to Us! Did you see either film? Put your mouth where your money went by posting a comment below. Two Cranky Guys will reply!

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From → Movie Reviews

  1. Michael weithorn permalink

    Didn’t see “Tower Heist” (so far no one has put a gun to my head), but I did see “Margin Call” and I gotta go with Bruce on this. Started off very promising, had great actors (I’d see Jeremy Irons in anything, except maybe “Tower Heist”), but after they set up the “problem” and decided how to deal with it, the last hour of the movie (or at least my memory of it) was one plaintive, melancholy conversation after another. And people getting fired or not getting fired randomly.

    • Hmm, maybe the movie is better if VOD cuts you off. I missed everything after the conversation with Tucci in Brooklyn Heights. I’ll catch up with the rest at some point and see if I agree with you. —Bret

    • bruceafretts permalink

      “One plaintive, melancholy conversation after another”—sounds like my friendship with Bret…

  2. Frank Finn permalink

    Tower Heist: Agree that it never got up even speed to get off the ground. When we got to the scene where Stiller bails Murphy out of jail, I was waiting for a reference to the scene in 48 HOURS and got . . . nothing! My teen-aged son commented when it was all over, “Not one thing in that movie could have actually happened.”

    Margin Call: Also watched via VOD, and thoroughly enjoyed it. A solid character study. Spacey was better than I’ve seen him in a long time. His exhausted, totally corrupt take on his character was completely believable. I bought his emotions completely from his disgust at Jeremy Irons’ cynical decision to deceive the firm’s clients to his tears for his dying dog.

    It’s the same contrast we see played out every week: mechanical, big-budget, overblown spectacle versus subtle, well-acted, low-budget grown-up fare.

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