Kicking the Tweets

Potpourri (2011)

Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time?

Imagine if the kids from The Breakfast Club lived in Donnie Darko's universe and performed Waking Life as their school play, jazzing it up with musical numbers and a zombie apocalypse. That's the gist of Elliot Diviney's transcendent Potpourri, an independent film that, like Sudden Death! and Absentia, broadened my understanding of just how much can be achieved outside the Hollywood studio system.

You might think me crazy for calling it one of the year's best. Believe me, writing about Potpourri is a high wire act of controlling my urge to gush and finding just the right words to convince you that this low-budget movie you've never heard of is as smart, entertaining, and well-produced as most things you'll find at the cineplex.

The film centers on five philosophy students at a Minnesota college. Their penchant for slacking has led their teacher, Professor Winkle (Matthew Feeney), to offer a familiar ultimatum: ace their term papers or fail the class. They form a study group at Will's (Brent Stariha) house, and Frankie (Brandon Van Vliet) brings over a trio of specially made papier-mâché masks, each stuffed with a different consciousness-altering drug. Marnie (Shannon McDonough) brews a cup of 3000-mg coffee. Perry (Punnavith Koy) smears some lime-green goop on his chest and inhales deeply. Frankie fires up a hookah stuffed with trippy potpourri, and Noah (Ryan Kiser) samples a bit of everything. Hayden (Mike Borka) opts out, as he'd written his paper a month ago, and Will heads upstairs for some tutoring from his girlfriend, Emma (Jenelle Kidd), and a bottle of Ritalin.

From here, Potpourri plays out as a series of seemingly disjointed vignettes, each telling the story of what each character experiences on their respective drug trips. Perry wakes up in a medieval forest, full of talking dirt slugs, barbarians, and a princess in need of saving. Marnie makes her way to the local library, where she encounters a singing book and a term-paper salesman who looks and sounds like he sauntered in from a community-theatre production of Grease. It turns out Frankie mixed up the bottle he'd sold to Emma, who winds up super-stoned and behind bars. Frankie and Hayden, meanwhile, head to a party where a bad batch of drugs turns people into zombies.

And, hey, that's just one layer of this wacky onion! I didn't mention the hard-boiled federal agent hot on the trail of the undead narcotic. As Walter Killgore, Gary David Keast looks like the love-child of Michael Fassbender and John Hawkes, and acts as if he's weary of being world-weary. The movie also has a brilliant bookend device involving a Web critic named Richard Randolph (Tony D. Czech) who essentially live-blogs the story. He occasionally stops the show to point out flaws in the filmmaking or to switch from beer to whiskey as the screenplay unravels under the weight of its own silliness.

Yes, Potpourri is a silly film, but it deserves to be taken very seriously. The people behind it sure did, and to watch it is to be reminded that for every ten groups of nimrods fucking around in the woods with a camera, there is a passionate, undiscovered Peter Jackson or Martin Scorsese--an ambitious, talented visionary who settles for nothing less than perfection when creating art for public consumption. Diviney is, I believe, one such visionary. Almost every detail of his film is tackled with precision and a desire to make it look as "non-indie" as possible. From the animated text and imagery in Marnie's singing books; to the frequent reality-distorting warps and washes; to the impressive and imaginative gore on display in the climactic, Dead Alive-worthy zombie raid, Potpourri looks and feels like it was made for much more than it probably cost.

Regular Kicking the Seat readers know that I appreciate slick production values and special effects, but will dismiss both in a heartbeat if the screenplay is bad. Fortunately, Potpourri has one of the tightest, most thought-provoking and hilarious scripts I've seen in quite awhile. I opened this review by comparing the movie to a host of others--but that's just shorthand. The truth is that Potpourri is pretty unique in its presentation and ideas, and certainly in its execution. The numerous theories about time travel and parallel universes sound painstakingly legit; even if completely fabricated, it's melodiously woven into the dialogue in a way that makes me believe that the characters believe what they're saying. I also love that, even as the narrative eats itself, there's never a sense of Diviney winging his way towards an ending. Potpourri is a study in controlled craziness that puts to shame many recent movies that paint themselves into corners and then leave the audience to decide whether or not the filmmakers are geniuses or frauds.

No movie is perfect, though, and my minor gripe is that only ninety-nine percent of the actors are great. As the stoned knight, Perry, Koy straddles the line between believable, sleepy idiot and first-semester drama student. Fortunately, he's relegated to the film's goofiest realm, where his particular brand of got-the-script-a-second-ago delivery blends in well with the grunting savages and a princess (Jessica Cameron) who is also similarly afflicted. I should mention that the high quality of the rest of the film effectively buoys these sequences; by the end, I found Koy more charming than grating. The jury's still out on Kiser, whose physical expressiveness belies his often marble-mouthed delivery.

On the plus side, the movie features two great discoveries in Kidd and Feeney. I felt the impotent rage of Feeney's sarcastic educator in having to deal with a gang of unengaged kids; he imbues his character with a real enthusiasm for teaching, as well as spot-on comic timing when exacting his revenge at grading time. Kidd is a complete package of natural performance and cuteness, alternating between supportive, jilted girlfriend and blitzed-out-of-her-mind pixie (the dashboard video of her DUI arrest is both hot and hilarious). It's a testament to Diviney's commitment as a filmmaker that he sought out such great performers for roles that could have easily been disposable in this large, nutty ensemble picture.

I found Potpourri to be not only fun and wildly creative, but also inspirational. My five-reviews-per-week diet often leaves me feeling malnourished, spiritually. It doesn't take long to get discouraged at the state of movies in general, small or large. But every once in awhile, a crew of hungry, driven people emerges to remind me that there's no reason to settle for mediocre cinema, or to despair that the medium is dying. In this way, Diviney's film is itself pure consciousness expansion, and it'll be a long, long way down from this high.


Swamphead (2011)

Evil Dead-on-Arrival

This the second time in a week that I find myself writing about a well-made but utterly unwatchable exploitation throwback. Seriously, these movies have got to go. All of them. The joke has been told too many times, and it wasn't that funny to begin with.

Swamphead is a low-budget horror/comedy about teens camping out in the woods and running afoul of a murderous, supernatural creature. There's nothing wrong with the premise, or with the idea of making a farce out of the kind of Evil Dead-style thrillers that spawned a cottage industry of imitators thirty years ago. But even the best ideas can fall apart if executed poorly, and co-writers/directors Dustin Drover and Justin Propp take a fatal spaghetti-on-the-wall approach to the material that makes seventy-five minutes feel like three hours.

I have the same problem with Swamphead as I did with Hobo with a Shotgun: for some reason, a group of talented young filmmakers has gone out of their way to make a deliberately bad movie. It's difficult to pinpoint which of Swamphead's numerous problems is the deal-breaker, but any one of the five below could be the culprit:

1. What are you throwing back to? The popular misconception about 80s slasher films is that, while scary to kids of that era, they were, in reality, full of bad actors, silly practical effects, and a pervasive layer of cheese. This idea is perpetuated, I think, by grown-ups who are too embarrassed to admit that they like horror movies. Sure, not every picture from that over-saturated time was a gem, but that's true of any genre.

Swamphead, like many of its misguided contemporaries, assumes that by featuring terrible actors and too-cheesy-to-believe special effects it is somehow either recreating the charm of the the time or making fun of it. But you can't ridicule something that never existed. In its overtly raunchy characters, juvenile and disgusting scenarios, and free-form structure, Swamphead is to 1980s horror nostalgia what talk of tie-dyed shirts is to discussions of 1960s politics--a surface-level analysis that has nothing to do with the truth.

2. Leave Airplane! to the professionals. With its visual gags, non-sequiturs, and wacky characters, Airplane! gave birth to a comedy sub-genre. In the ensuing decades, many films have broken from its disaster-movie template, expanding into the realm of action films, police dramas, and even horror movies. But it really does take someone of Zucker Brothers- or Wayans Brothers-level comedic talent to make this kind of humor work.

Propp and Drover's screenplay--assuming 80% of the movie wasn't improvised on-location, as it appears to have been--suffers from both a lack of a defined target and a misunderstanding of what makes jokes work for an audience past the age of ten. Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and Scary Movie were counterpoints to films that were hilarious in their self-seriousness. They effectively mocked the source material by playing things straight, with the occasional oddball character or scenario to underscore the ridiculousness of the whole situation.

Every character in Swamphead is a half-conceived rendering of an archetype lifted from several different genres. In the protagonist, Steve (Josh Harmon), we have, essentially, a straight-haired Napoleon Dynamite. His best friend, Marty (Theodore Koepke), is the fat, jealous loser who can't decide if he wants to score with girls more than he wants to hang out with Steve. We also get the asshole older brother, the slutty, idiot girlfriends, and the creepy loner who lives to track the mysterious disembodied head in the woods.

Again, nothing wrong with poking fun at well-established archetypes--but what's the point of insinuating that the girls are lesbians? Who are the filmmakers trying to make laugh when plopping an Elvis-inspired hillbilly rocker in the middle of the woods? Is the gag that all of the "high school-aged" characters look to be at least in their mid-twenties supposed to be a comment on something? Ninety-nine percent of the jokes in Swamphead need to be trimmed in favor of actual character-based comedy (the one percent that gets to stay is a line that made me half-chuckle--a line I can no longer recall). 

3. "Retards" aren't funny. One of the girls that goes camping with Steve and Marty, Megan (Andrea Smith), has a mentally challenged brother named Haun (Andrew Swant). He wears a yellow protective helmet, grunts loudly and dumbly, and can't control his bowels. He is also the source of at least half the film's humor.

It takes a deft touch to pull off a character like this; not only do Swamphead's writers not have it, they seem gleeful in giving the middle finger to political correctness--that crazy social evil that prevents us from calling people "retards" or building "funny" scenes around wiping chunks of red-brown feces out of a troubled young man's ass crack (with attendant fart sounds, of course). Sometimes, I can let stuff like this go, but there's so much of this humor in Swamphead that it crosses the bounds of off-color, good-natured ribbing into blatant antagonism.

4. Neither are dancing robots. Like the similarly misguided horror/comedy, My Bloody Wedding, an allegedly funny dancing robot pops up in Swamphead. I doubt there's any connection between the two movies, but this is just a note to aspiring filmmakers: unless your film is called Dancing Robot Massacre, save the cardboard and silver paint for a "Will Work for Writing Lessons" sign.

5. If you've got horror chops, don't waste your time on fart gags. At about the three-quarter mark, after we've seen the bodiless Swamphead puppet maul most of the cast and endured the frown-inducing flashback where a Viking fights t-shirt-wearing Native Americans, the movie switches tone on a dime. One of the few survivors, Steve races through the woods in pursuit of the monster. For what seems like ten minutes, Swamphead becomes a legit horror movie.

Of course, this is undone by Megan's death scene, which is played for laughs: her dying wish is for Steve to remember to wipe her brother's ass. It's a shame, too, because (SPOILER!) when she stumbles out of the forest onto the road and is impaled by a booby trap set by a supernatural survivalist, I thought, "Wow, that would've been an amazing table-turner in a real horror movie!"

And that's the tragedy of Swamphead. Had Propp, Drover, and the rest of their crew devoted all this time and energy to making an effective backwoods horror film with a sparkling new mythology, the film might have been amazing. As it stands, Propp's cinematography captures the eerie Wisconsin woods almost as well* as Cory Udler does in his films, but a good movie is more than just pretty pictures.

Speaking of Udler, I'd be remiss in not pointing out how important good acting is to these kinds of movies. Even the shakiest material can be glossed over by performers who believe in it and can sell it, and I'm sad to report that Swamphead is lousy with actors who seem plucked from a community college Media Studies class--or the bowling alley arcade next door. Even if the filmmakers believe that all 80s horror actors were shit, there's a limit to how much one should accept from a performer in the name of preserving a film's integrity. Even the worst bit player in Friday the 13th: A New beginning was better than Swamphead's stand-out (assuming there is one).

I don't mean to be overly harsh on Swamphead, but the film is a colossal disappointment. Full disclosure: I met Drover and producer/editor Derrick Carey at Crypticon a couple weeks ago, and was really excited to check out their film. They're great guys, and this is a really tough position to be in. But, as with every other movie I review, I owe it to myself and to my readers to be honest--and I figure this ten minutes of bile is justice for the seventy-five minutes of clock-checking agony I went through this morning.

That said, and I mean this sincerely, I'm eager to see what this team pulls together next. There's enough promise in the technical aspects of their filmmaking to guarantee that their follow-up is much better. Jesus, it has to be.

*The day-for-night scenes at the end are really bothersome, especially because I can't figure out if it's supposed to be funny, or if the filmmakers were just compensating for a lack of time and budget--either way, the effect is akin to hat of a psychic's POV shot from a bad 80s TV show.


Immortals (2011)

Myth Conception

This may come as a shock, but if you're a fan of Greek mythology or the film 300, you should probably stay away from Immortals. True, the movie is being advertised as a warring-gods-and-oiled-men epic, brought to you by the producers of Zack Snyder's bloody CGI opus, but director Tarsem Singh and writers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides have delivered a pretty imaginative take on well-worn material that may surprise audiences with both its narrative liberties and lack of mindless splatter.

For the record, I'm a fan of 300. As such, I can acknowledge that the constant battles--while slightly different and exciting in their own ways--become tiresome after awhile, and the obviousness of Snyder's reliance on green screen backdrops gives the film a kooky, made-in-the-basement feel. I should also note that I'm not intimately familiar with Greek myths. I might recognize the names of some gods, if you threw some at me, but I'm more in tune with their Marvel Comics incarnations than how they're represented in historical records.

This preamble is my way of cluing you in as to what kind of maniac might actually enjoy Immortals, a film that, judging by the trailers, is another loud, dumb, CG-swords-and-sandals epic in the vein of the Clash of the Titans remake (which I enjoyed) or The Prince of Persia (which I don't really remember).

Mickey Rourke stars as King Hyperion, a nasty tyrant so enraged at the gods for allowing his family to die of disease that he plots to free the titans--a race of immortal creatures who were imprisoned in the earth after a pre-historic war in heaven. To do this, he must find the fabled bow of Epirus, whose location is known only to Phaedra (Freida Pinto), the virgin oracle. Hyperion's army lays waste to countless villages in his quest to capture the oracle, including that of Theseus (Henry Cavill), a peasant who has been groomed from birth by a wise elder (John Hurt) to be a crusader for justice. After Hyperion sweeps into town, "justice" means exacting revenge for his mother's death at the hands of the butcher-king.

No one will blame you for having flashbacks to Star Wars, and Immortals plunges deeper into George Lucas territory as Theseus and Phaedra encounter a wisecracking rogue (Stavros, played by Stephen Dorff) and his loyal sidekick (Alan Van Sprang as Dareios) on their way to warn the people of Athens that Hyperion's men are ready to wipe out the last bit of resistance. 

What separates this film from other modern epics of its kind is its willingness to give the villain as much depth and screen time as the protagonist. Rourke is awesome as the disillusioned ruler with the reputation and resources to make the world suffer for his personal agonies. It's easy to look at a movie like this and chuckle when the actor pops up with a scarred face, ratty hair, and armor (Ian raises hand guiltily), but, like all the performers here, he takes the role seriously and imbues his character's utterly monstrous acts with a tinge of empathy. He's not a one-dimensional bad guy, as evidenced by his reaction to an Athenian turncoat who he could have easily used as a pawn (like the wine bottle scene in the beginning of Pan's Labyrinth, there's a moment early on involving the traitor that let the stunned, silent audience know Immortals isn't just fluffy escapism).

It also helps that Cavill makes a terrific leading man. He plays Theseus not as a helpless whiner like Luke Skywalker or a blank slab of beefcake like Jake Gyllenhaal, but as a proud man of little means who won't take crap from anyone of his own station or above. His charisma, bravery, and leadership qualities are self-evident, without being superheroic.** His chemistry with Pinto is tender and believable, and both actors underscore the tragedy of their characters at every turn, instead of bouncing off each other with sassy one-liners (their lovemaking scene--SPOILER!--is surprisingly, emotionally powerful, where in other hands it could have simply been exploitive).

But no one goes to these movies for the story, right? It's all about the visuals, baby! I'm joking, of course, but in Tarsem--who goes by his first name, professionally--you have a director known for a bold, Eastern-influenced style of fantasy that can turn even the weakest of material into a reason to go the the theatre (see also The Cell--if you must). From the film's opening scene, Tarsem sets the audience off balance with weird, stunning imagery that typically has no place in a film like this.

Tarsem's Greece looks like it was sketched by Moebius and rendered by ILM. He gathered the perfect storm of really interesting visual artists in cinematographer Brendan Galvin, production designer Tom Foden, and costume designer Eiko Isioka. Nearly every frame of Immortals looks like a painting or a panel from the world's most dynamic storyboard artist; unlike Snyder's trademark slow-down/speed-up action scenes, Tarsem uses suspended motion to help us better appreciate his crew's artistry and choreography (real-world and virtual).

The film is being promoted as a 3D experience, and I can't recommend enough that you watch the 2D version. Even the best 3D glasses have a darkening effect on the film's presentation, and Immortals is such a bright, expressive picture that any tampering with the palette is a crime. To his credit, Tarsem also directs like he's working on a Pixar movie--meaning that there's enough dimensionality in his compositions that further enhancements are unnecessary.

Rendering gorgeous landscapes and armies made of thousands of masked brutes is easy (okay, not "easy", but at least expected in today's industry of multi-multi-million-dollar computer epics). But making those landscapes and characters interesting to look at is another art entirely. I love Tarsem's take on Mount Olympus, a large, cold city in the sky, populated by a handful of gold-clad gods whose dour, worried mood seems to have infected their environment. On the rare occasion that the gods do descend to earth, their actions are truly spectacular. Immortals has one of the best uses of scale and consequence that I've seen in a blockbuster, and such attention to detail goes a long way in selling the weight of a given scene.

It's a shame that Immortals will likely be lumped in with movies that, at a glance, are just like it. The others I've mentioned seem like sketches, like incremental improvements leading up to a definitive masterwork. This is an effects marvel that tweaks myths and genre conventions just enough to be truly memorable, a smart tale of courage and adventure that deserves to be praised as a go-to fantasy film for this generation.

Note: I'd be remiss in not giving a shout-out to Luke Evans and Isabel Lucas as Zeus and Athena, respectively. As gods who are bound by laws and tempted by emotions, they help sell the film's cosmic predicament by playing up the humanity of their characters, rather than parading around like pompous, unfeeling monoliths. Zeus' solution to the problem of the unleashed titans surprised me, as I'd expected the filmmakers to cheat their way to a happy ending.

*To those of you shouting "Joseph Campbell, asshole!" right now, I say, calm down and realize that the number of people who know who Joseph Campbell is gets smaller every week--unlike Darth Vader's fan base, which will thrive for as long as there are action figures and video games.

**Yep, that's a silly nod to the fact that Cavill is the next big-screen Superman.


Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

Brother, Can You Spare Me?

The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.

--Robert De Niro, A Bronx Tale

A few years ago, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez released Grindhouse, an artificially aged, excessively violent homage to the low-rent, 70s exploitation films of their youths. So complete was their attention to detail that fake trailers for other trashy movies, like Werewolf Women of the SS and Thanksgiving, played before and in between the features. Rodriguez even hosted a contest for fans to cut together their own grindhouse-style preview, and the winner--Jason Eisener's Hobo with a Shotgun--screened theatrically with some versions of the film.

Now, Hobo with a Shotgun has been expanded to a full-length film starring Rutger Hauer as an elderly drifter who fights evil in America's most corrupt small town. It's gratuitously violent, mean-spirited to the core, and sprinkled with nudity--making it more of a throwback to Lloyd Kaufman's mid-80s Troma films. Like Rodriguez's Machete, Hobo proves that the further one gets from the original Grindhouse, the less likely one is to stay true to the spirit of the films being referenced. Eisener and screenwriter John Davies have delivered a beautiful-looking, well-scored movie that has little reason to either be watched or exist.

As with many recent films that try to capitalize on 1980s nostalgia, Eisener and company, for the most part, seem to look at the era through the rolled eyes of modern hipsterdom. To them, bad acting is something to be dialed up to eleven, and scenes involving creative deaths and torture are to be used almost as frequently as dialogue. Characters screaming at the camera for ninety minutes while beating each other with razor-wrapped baseball bats and setting school buses full of children on fire* suggests that the creators believe all filmmakers working before they were born shared their lack of earnestness.

No, I'm not talking about taste; I'm talking about earnestness. Anyone can tell a good actor to perform terribly, as evidenced by Gregory Smith's embarrassing turn as Slick, the son of local mob boss, Drake (Brian Downey). But it takes real heart to wrangle a slew of bad actors into making a memorable film that succeeds in spite of its low budget and dearth of talent. Specifically, I'm thinking of Kaufman's The Toxic Avenger, which Hobo desperately wants to be. The films share the same structure and style of gore effects, as well as a gleeful disdain of political correctness. But where The Toxic Avenger had charm and heart, Hobo thinks charm and heart are lame, 80s affectations that need to be skewered and doused in fake blood.

For the sake of something or other, I'll breeze through the story. Our code hero, the Hobo, wanders into town on the back of a freight train and witnesses Drake and his two boys, Slick and Ivan (Nick Bateman) popping Drake's brother's head off with a nastily inventive gag involving a manhole cover and a speeding car. Drake has a large audience, and no one lifts a finger to help the pleading man. The Hobo follows the criminals to a club and makes a shaky stand--for which he's mutilated and thrown into a pile of garbage.

He's taken in by Abby (Molly Dunsworth), a hooker with a heart of gold whom he'd saved from Slick's unwanted advances. After getting cleaned up, he visits a pawn shop and drools over a used lawn mower that he dreams of using to start is own landscaping business. A gang of masked punks holds up the store, and the Hobo kills all of them using a shotgun he spies mounted on the wall. Thus begins a reign of bloody vigilantism that can only end with a kidnapping, rescue, and dramatic showdown. No points for guessing that the citizens reclaim their dignity, thanks to a well-timed speech about the virtues of the downtrodden.

Eisener and his extremely talented crew prove that they can make a gorgeous-looking terrible movie, so I have to wonder why they wouldn't try making a gorgeous-looking good movie. Tarantino and Rodriguez knew that the key to successful homage is delivering something original that contains stylistic or thematic elements of another piece of art. Eisener's film is a boring copy--both structurally and due to the constant, in-your-face excesses that cause near-instant disengagement on the part of the viewer.

It's a shame, too. Hauer does very well as the out-of-step old man who clings to antiquated notions of justice. His quiet scenes with Dunsworth are generic but oddly touching, and are constantly interrupted by loud, juvenile nonsense involving glass-chewing and exploding heads. Thematically, this holds true for Karim Hussain's camerawork and lighting, and the awesome, period-inspired music of Adam Burke, Darius Holbert, and Russell Howard III--which, at times, perfectly captures the synth weirdness of early John Carpenter. Again, these impressive efforts are undercut by a creator who forces them to gussy up repetitive, juvenile scenes.

Whereas Kaufman and company struggled with independent financing to make a schlocky film that they'd hoped would draw enough attention to allow them to make more films, Eisener has made a forgettable picture that follows in the tired nostalgia/remake trend dreamt up by art-oblivious studio executives. Okay, I'm projecting here, but that's what Hobo with a Shotgun feels like. From the deliberately awkward cheesy lines to the fake creases in the poster meant to evoke that "found, folded" look, the film is as authentic and entertaining as the reemergence of fuzzy wristbands a few years ago.

For his next venture, I would love to see Eisener forge a new path, to make a movie that people will want to reference and copy years after its release. He has it in him to do this, but the masterpiece won't emerge until he scrapes off the fine layer of sneering cynicism that infects his work.

*The school bus scene is called back later to great effect: this movie's one interesting idea sees Slick atoning for his sins in what may be an homage to Trick 'R Treat--which was itself an homage to 80s horror films.

This review was requested by Mark S.


Tower Heist (2011)

Ocean's Chapter Eleven

My watchmaker friends have a saying: "Timing is everything".* It's the key to not only understanding the phenomenal number of problems in Brett Ratner's Tower Heist, but also the confluence of events that led me to see it when I did.

Last weekend, I chose (wisely) to see the new Harold & Kumar movie instead of the other big release. In fact, I'd intended to wait for Tower Heist on video, but the French film that my friends and I wanted to see yesterday was canceled due to a random, one-night-only stage performance. We ran in the polar opposite direction of the evening's planned artistic loftiness and opted for an action comedy instead.

We did this on the day after Ratner stepped down as producer for the 2012 Academy Awards telecast, following last week's completely innocent and out-of-context assertion** that "rehearsal's for fags". Heist co-star Eddie Murphy displayed admirable solidarity and questionable judgment by almost immediately quitting his Oscars-hosting gig. Then it was announced that rapper Heavy D passed away, mere hours before I saw his cameo in this film.

Sadly, these blinking, cosmic arrows are the only interesting part of Tower Heist, a nearly laugh-free comedy starring actors who should know better, performing material that itself qualifies as robbery (a moot point, 'cause suing a studio for two hours and eleven bucks is cost-prohibitive). I didn't expect the film to be good, but I didn't think it would be this bad.

Ben Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs, manager of New York's fictitious Tower hotel. He and his quirky staff tend to the every whim of the building's multi-millionaire residents. The biggest dog on the block, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) treats everyone well, until he's busted for running a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme (or, I guess, a Ponzi-style Ponzi scheme). Years earlier, Kovacs had invested his employees' pension funds with Shaw--funds that have been long since wiped out.

Desperate to recover their dignity and life savings, Kovacs enlists his crew and a trash-talking, felon neighbor named Slide (Murphy) to break into Shaw's apartment and steal his $20 million rainy-day fund out of a wall safe. Because I assume you've seen the trailer, as well as other heist comedies, there's no need to avoid what passes for spoilers in the minds of screenwriters Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson.

These colorful, nutty, not-quite-criminals pull of the job by relying less on precision timing and technical prowess than on coincidences, like people leaving doors open or an entire security team huddling around an issue of Spanish Playboy for half an hour instead of watching their monitors. They also count on spectators at the Thanksgiving Day Parade not noticing a 1966 Ferrari dangling from one of the city's most famous buildings--or the people dangling from the Ferrari.

Perhaps these quibbles are unfair. Tower Heist was never about the heist, but about bringing lots of actors together for much-needed career boosts. Murphy and Matthew Broderick give stardom another go, having squandered the good will they'd established with the brilliant 1999 comedies Bowfinger and Election, respectively. Murphy's Slide is the kind of thuggish, street-monster that men of his age and stature should be actively railing against in entertainment; on the flip-side of that coin, Broderick plays the ultra-white-bread, out-of-touch investment banker whose big comedic moment involves him holding a gun and calling Murphy "bitch" several times.

Gabourey Sidibe turns up as a Jamaican maid who seems quiet but (SPOILER!) is really a sexual beast with a violent streak. There's nothing funnier than a morbidly obese, screaming black lady ramming a supply cart into a seated FBI agent whose only crime was guarding a doorway--is there? In fairness, he did refuse to eat the slice of cake that she'd offered him--the one sprinkled with poison. How precious!

Most everyone is wasted here. Casey Affleck turns in a career-worst performance. Judd Hirsch and Téa Leoni "play" perpetually drunk and/or angry. Michael Peña's Enrique is a stereotype too old to believe and too dumb to live. And Stiller spends most of the film looking like he just wants to bust out of his ridiculous Nyew Yaw-uk accent and do something funny. Only Alda escapes with a fine performance under his belt, one that deserves to be grafted onto a much better picture.

What's most surprising about Tower Heist is that the filmmakers' pedigrees suggest it should have actually worked. The writers worked on Ocean's Eleven and Catch Me If You Can, and the director made the highly successful Rush Hour movies. But as collaborators, they are absolutely incapable of making action scenes exciting (save for the dangling-car scene, but I credit that to my own fear of heights and mild vertigo) or comedic scenes funny (their idea of a clever gut-buster is seeing Ferris Bueller clinging to a Ferrari for dear life, and reminding people that Murphy starred in Shrek by focusing on a particular parade balloon).

The problem is that none of the creators can filter out the juvenile, lowest-common-denominator nonsense that clutters up a pretty cool story. Tower Heist's timeliness is undeniable, and I didn't expect Stiller's character to wind up the way he does. But the film is so stagnant and humorless that I kept thinking back to Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's movies--a franchise I didn't really care for until the third entry, but which (mostly) played to the smartest people in the audience. Ratner and company have made a comedically bankrupt snoozer whose fans are likely people you wouldn't trust to hold the door for you.

*I don't know any watchmakers.

** I don't know anyone who believes this.