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Five improbably important questions posed by 'Tower Heist'

October 21, 2011 |  2:30 pm

Two weeks from today, Brett Ratner comes out with his Eddie Murphy-Ben Stiller comedy "Tower Heist." While the arrival of a new Ratner objet d'art doesn't usually raise significant questions--the geopolitical overtones of "Rush Hour 3" notwithstanding--his new movie has implications far beyond its action set pieces and quipped one-liners.

How the Universal release--about a group of workers at a luxury Manhattan apartment building trying to steal back their money from a Bernie Madoff-like tycoon--performs commercially will have a surprising amount to say about celebrity, the movie industry and, gulp, even Occupy Wall Street populism.

Here are five questions you never thought a Brett Ratner movie would answer.

Murphy's Law. Eddie Murphy hasn't had a live-action hit in years. His last few vehicles, "Meet Dave" and "Imagine That," couldn't come close to shooting the banana out the tailpipe. But this movie could present Murphy how we like and remember him from his heyday: cracking jokes, pulling his slick impersonations, flashing the pearly whites. In fact, by all trailer appearances, his character, a small-time criminal who's recruited into Stiller's justice-minded gang, gets him back to his "Beverly Hills Cop" roots. He's an outlaw on the side of right, his means justified by his ends and his quips. If it's a hit, get ready for the comeback stories. If it isn't, the odes will turn to obituaries.

Oscar the Grouchy.The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences set off plenty of grousing this summer when it made the stunning announcements that Ratner would produce the Oscars and that the mostly off-the-radar Murphy would host them. If "Tower Heist" flops, there will be awkward jokes and questions from now until late February. If it succeeds, the academy could look smart, demonstrating that Ratner and Murphy can resonate with the broader public--the same public the show needs to goose its ratings.

VOD premiums. Universal was forced into an embarrassing about-face when theater owners objected to its plan to put out the movie via on-demand just three weeks after its theatrical release. But the game may not be over yet. Sure, if the movie flourishes, theater owners could claim they're still the best way to bring out a new release. But if it doesn't, it could provide ammunition for studios to try something else the next time out

Occupy Multiplexes. "Heist" is one of the first mainstream entertainments since the financial crisis of 2008 to take on the subject of Wall Street and fat cats (never mind the millions raked in
by those making the film). How broad is sympathy for the OWS movement? Yeah, it's a big commercial comedy. But if the movie resonates, it could show that the sympathy is broader than some claim.

Static comedy. "30 Minutes or Less," "Cop Out," "Killers"-- a good era for the action-comedy this ain't. Enter Ratner, who, love him or hate him, has one of the most lucrative action comedy franchises in
history with "Rush Hour." With this film, he looks to save the genre, one high jinks-filled, odd-couple argument at a time.


Universal on 'Tower Heist': Never mind

Exhibitors clash with movie studios: Is this a war nobody can win?

'Tower Heist': A clue to this year's Oscars

--Steven Zeitchik


 Photo: "Tower Heist." Credit: Universal Pictures

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