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Ben Stiller could plan a heist, as 'Ocean's Eleven'-style movie could go from black to white

February 16, 2010 |  5:30 pm
"Trump Heist" is one of those films that could be a brilliant update or so much high-concept high jinks -- or maybe a little bit of both.

Stiller The film (which may eventually be called "Tower Heist" -- that pesky legal department) is about a group of con-men who devise a plan to swindle the residents of New York's upscale Trump Tower, where they also work. It's basically a black "Ocean's Eleven" (not our phrase -- that's how development people in Hollywood are talking about it), with stars like Chris Rock, Chris Tucker and Eddie Murphy all previously mentioned in connection with the film.

But now the project from Universal and frequent production collaborator Imagine could be getting a bit of an, um, face-lift: Ben Stiller is in talks to play the lead heist-meister, the role Murphy would have played. A new draft of the script will be written -- likely by a writer Stiller has worked with in the past whom he'll bring on for this film. Universal declined comment. [UPDATE: Sources say that the studio has brought on Noah Baumbach, the "Squid and the Whale" writer who directed Stiller in the upcoming "Greenberg," to do a little bit of work on the latest draft. Said draft was written by "Mrs. Doubtfire" writer Leslie Dixon, who also worked on Stiller's "The Heartbreak Kid."]

The project might have a different feel with Stiller in the lead role of what was a black-oriented comedy -- he's not exactly Eminem -- though with Murphy a crossover star in his own right, it may also not be that dramatic a switch. As for timing, well, the project has been through the paces -- director Brett Ratner has been talking about it for some time now -- but the filmmaker could now make it a priority.

"Heist" has brought on a who's who of Hollywood screenwriters over its development history --  including "Inside Man" writer Russell Gewirtz, Hollywood veteran Rawson Marshall Thurber, and, most notably, "Ocean's Eleven" writer Ted Griffin. (Thurber has a Stiller connection, too, writing and directing "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," which saw Stiller play the villain White Goodman).

Hollywood has a history of giving movies with white stars a black treatment; Murphy was previously part of one such effort with "The Nutty Professor" franchise. This one puts an extra quarter-turn on the idea -- it's a white movie re-imagined as a black movie that may now be reconfigured with a white lead.

There are some business implications, too, as Universal is throwing in lately with Stiller. Although his production company Red Hour is now on the Fox lot, the actor is reprising his Gaylord Focker role for the studio's "Little Fockers" next holiday season and also takes a more dramatic turn as the lead character in "Greenberg," a Noah Baumbach film that Universal specialty division Focus Features will release next month. Stiller has done action in films only sporadically (in "Tropic Thunder" and 2004's "Starsky & Hutch"), but a good con-man tale is hard to resist, in black or white.

--Steven Zeitchik and John Horn

Photo: Ben Stiller. Credit: Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times