Six years ago, Eddie Murphy proposed taking Ocean’s Eleven and inverting it. An all-black cast would play Trump Tower servants who join forces to steal tens of millions from their overbearing boss. And rather than be ace criminals, they’d be bumbling, law-abiding citizens who have to learn their new craft on the fly.
Producer Brian Grazer and widely despised director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) immediately started kicking around names such as Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Jamie Foxx to team with Murphy in Tower Heist. Over the years, they paid a dozen or so top screenwriters to take a whack at this story. But Hollywood’s finest were repeatedly stumped.
First, it’s hard to truly hate Donald Trump. The man has been around forever and folks have grown fond of him. He was written into Gremlins 2 way back in 1990 as the rich bad guy (Daniel Clamp, owner of Clamp Center), yet he still wound up one of that movie’s heroes.
Second, if we’re all supposed to agree that greed isn’t good anymore, it’s hard to justify thievery. Eventually, Ted Griffin (screenwriter of the 2001 Ocean’s Eleven) solved these problems by changing the villain’s persona from Donald Trumplike to Bernie Madoffish. The financier (Alan Alda) has stolen the pension funds the building’s staff had entrusted to him. The working-class heroes then break into his penthouse to look for his stash of getaway cash so they can reimburse their coworkers.
Third, the market for all-black movies has shrunk since Murphy’s Coming to America was 1988’s third-biggest smash. In recent years, black-dominated casts have triumphed at the box office mostly in nostalgic musicals such as Dreamgirls and Ray.
Still, African-Americans have developed their own ethnic cinema, something that Latinos and Asians in this country haven’t accomplished. The trade-off, however, is that “all-black cast” is now associated more with downscale Tyler Perry movies than with blockbusters.
Foreign audiences are notoriously uninterested in all-black movies. American Hispanics, who increasingly dominate domestic audiences, share this global distaste. This doesn’t mean that there is no work for black actors, only that Hollywood has had to expend a huge amount of ingenuity over the years contriving black-white buddy movies (or, for Rush Hour, black-Chinese buddy movies).
Fourth, African-American men seldom work anymore in servile jobs. They find such employment unmanly. Of course, many immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa labor in luxury co-ops and hotels, but when was the last time you’ve had an American-born black waiter who wasn’t obviously gay? Whites are now uncomfortable hiring black American men for jobs requiring domestic access, whether due to white guilt, fear of black dishonesty, or both.
After the modestly budgeted period piece The Help earned $167 million domestically, it’s now clear that the solution should have been to set Tower Heist at the beginning of the Civil Rights era, the downstairs to Mad Men‘s upstairs.
Instead, Ratner and Grazer kicked Murphy out of the lead. They had his role as the staff’s manager rewritten for Ben Stiller to play as a hard-working white ethnic from Astoria, rather like his lead in the hit Night at the Museum comedies.
Murphy was demoted to the petty thief that Stiller hires to teach him how to steal. It’s largely the same role Murphy had in 48 Hrs. and Trading Places almost 30 years ago, and he’s quite funny in it.
Some other cast members are even better, such as Gabourey Sidibe of Precious as the 300-pound Jamaican maid whose visa is running out and therefore is on the hunt for a husband. But not just any husband. With that self-assurance reserved for enormous black women, she knows she deserves the best.
The movie’s ethnic stereotyping is precise enough that the filmmakers worried about casting a mestizo Mexican-American actor with sensational timing (Michael Peña) as a mulatto Nuyorican elevator operator. So they explain that he’s one-fourth American Indian: “I’m the Puerto Rican Mohican!”
For the first hour, Tower Heist tries hard to be a better movie than it ought to be. It’s much less vulgar than you’d expect from a Brett Ratner film. Although the director is often compared to Michael Bay, there are no explosions in Tower Heist. Indeed, the opening acts offer a slow, sweet ensemble portrait of working-class travails. Audiences don’t want to pay money to see people like themselves. They wish to imagine living in Trump Tower, not working there.
Unfortunately, when the promised caper finally cranks up, Ratner and Grazer visibly run out of money. Several crucial scenes—or at least ones that would have made the finale intelligible—simply never made it to the screen.
Old Hollywood hands aren’t supposed to mess up like this. Perhaps Madoff wasn’t the only one with his hand in the till.
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