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"We did not plan Occupy Wall Street."
Believe it or not, Brett Ratner felt compelled to explain that at the press conference for Tower Heist, held high above Columbus Circle at the swank Mandarin Oriental Hotel. An enterprising but naive reporter asked Ratner and his Tower Heist cohorts-- stars Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller, producer Brian Grazer-- not just what they thought about the Occupy Wall Street movement, but whether they'd travel a few miles downtown and join it. No one on the panel seemed to recognize any sense of irony as Ratner stumbled through an answer. No one snickered under their breath when Stiller said sincerely, "I think there's a lot of frustration out there that's valid. I understand where it's coming from." No one asked Grazer why he kept a stone-faced silence throughout this particular question.
That's power of celebrity and Hollywood, to see four millionaires sitting up onstage and to assume that they, too, understand the deep financial frustration of everyday Americans. To be fair, Tower Heist kind of gives you that assumption. It's a broad, innocuous farce, but also one in which a bunch of hotel employees ripped off by a Bernie Madoff-style investor strike back by breaking into his penthouse apartment and stealing his fortune. All four men at the press conference are more likely to own a million-dollar car than to steal one, but they're perfectly capable of making a movie about the revolt of the lower classes the same reason Sofia Coppola can make one about Marie Antoinette or Steven Spielberg can make one about aliens. We don't demand that our filmmakers experience what they're making movies about, just that they tell it convincingly.
Based on the rapturous audience response at my screening of Tower Heist, they've clearly pulled off this caper about the working man escaping his burden. But there's a difference between making it true onscreen and in real life, and it was more than a little hilarious watching Ratner and company not just skirt questions like 'Would you join Occupy Wall Street?" but studiously avoid any conflict whatsoever. When one questioner brought up Norbit's negative attitude toward heavy women, and compared it to the flirting Eddie Murphy's character does with Gabourey Sidibe's in Tower Heist, Murphy immediately got defensive and Ratner chimed in like the conflict-avoiding mother, "Let's stay positive! We're happy!" When Grazer was asked directly about Universal's scrapped plan to bring Tower Heist to VOD almost immediately, he had a one-sentence brushoff that basically ended the line of questioning. Maybe they each realized they had made a movie about sticking it to the Man, and sitting at the head of the table at this press conference, they were now the Man themselves.
The press conference largely went along the lines you would expect-- Ratner talked repeatedly about wanting to capture the authentic New York by shooting on location, being inspired by classic New York crime movies like The taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Hot Rock, and how Eddie Murphy "kind of invented the action comedy genre" with Beverly Hills Cop in the 80s. Stiller talked about how he liked living in New York "because it's harder," Murphy said he made the movie because he "wanted to get out of the house and do something." But then Grazer talked about they had to make the movie "on a smarter budget," and admitted that actors changed their deals in order to get the film made, and it was hard to avoid the eyerolls again. The budget for Tower Heist, as estimated by New York Times, was $85 million-- nothing by Hollywood standards, but a serious amount of money for the 99%.
Does the fact that Tower Heist was made by millionaires make it less fun or less successful as a movie? Well, of course not-- many, many movies are made by millionaires, including those that more honestly defend the working class, like The Fighter or Erin Brockovich. But neither of those movies were sold so blatantly as a product, as a feel-good commodity that, yes, entire families can go see together, but that will make the four men at that press conference even richer. They are using the deep financial insecurity of the working-class to build another rung on their ladder of immense success, making millions off a movie that, given ticket prices, plenty of families can't even afford to see. It's hard not to be bowled over by the irony of it all. Given that Ratner and company haven't made their way down to Occupy Wall Street, as far as I know, I imagine some part of them is well aware of it too.
Tower Heist opens in theaters this Friday.
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