Stealing time and exacting revenge
“Plots drawn from the headlines,” goes the blurb for crime shows and TV dramas that take for their material current events and timely topics. You could say the same for two recent movies: “In Time” and “Tower Heist.”
In tone and approach, the two films could not be more different. “In Time” is what’s known as a “dystopian” movie, a tale of life in the far future when the currency is time, and everyone (well, most everyone) is genetically programmed to live until the age of 25, upon which a person has a year to prepare for when he or she literally runs out of time. During their allotted time on earth, individuals spend and earn time, with the luckier ones earning enough to extend their existence. But for the greater many, life expectancy is often cut short, because most everything (transportation, food, drink, leisure) costs time and the cost keeps rising.
Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a ghetto kid who lives in Dayton and keeps his mother Rachel (Olivia Wilde) and himself barely above the “deadline” by taking on a factory job and whatever else he can use to gain time. Then one night he meets up with a mysterious character named Henry Hamilton (Matt Boner) who has a million years to his name (or rather, tattooed on his arm). It is Hamilton who tells Salas that the rich in New Greenwich have hoarded most of the time in the world, and keep raising the prices of commodities to keep the population in check.
When Hamilton transfers his time to Salas and then commits suicide (“I’m tired of living,” he says), Salas decides to take his revenge on the upper crust and crosses Timezones to extract his vengeance. He meets financier Phillip Weis (Vincent Karthasian) and Weis’ daughter Sylvia (a nearly unrecognizable Amanda Seyfried), whom he kidnaps and enlists in his crusade to set things right while fleeing from the Timekeepers, the designated law enforcers, led by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy).
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“Tower Heist,” on the other hand, is a comedic caper, although with a grim moral underlying it. Ben Stiller is Josh Kovacks, the building manager of a high-rise apartment in Manhattan who manages a staff dedicated to pampering and attending to the whims of its wealthy residents. Foremost of these is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a billionaire investor living in the building’s penthouse, who one day runs afoul of the FBI when he’s found guilty of absconding with billions of his clients’ money.
Among these clients are the building’s staff, whose retirement funds were entrusted to Shaw to invest and grow. Even more tragic is the fate of the doorman Lester (Stephen Henderson) who invested his life’s savings with Shaw just months before Shaw’s house arrest.
Angered at the injustice of it all, especially by Shaw’s cavalier attitude toward the “small people” he had defrauded and ruined, Kovacks enlists a group of employees and a failed banker in a plot to steal a rumored stash of $20 million from Shaw’s penthouse. But because they lack any sort of criminal savvy, they recruit Kovacks’ childhood chum Slide (Eddie Murphy) to teach them the ropes.
What follows is a hilarious series of mishaps and misadventures, capped by the actual heist during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Do they get away with it? Well, yes and no.
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Both films are hugely entertaining, although “In Time” is much darker in tone and tension. “Tower Heist,” though, is much sleeker, more formulaic.
But the two movies are remarkably similar in inspiration, or is it aspiration? Watching “In Time” and the revolt against the moneyed class, I couldn’t help but be reminded of “Occupy Wall Street” and the populist rage it created against the Wall Street “types” who nearly ruined the American economy but appear to have gotten away with it.
In the scenes of the folk of Dayton gathering and looting a “time bank” that Will and Sylvia had broken into, one recalls the street scenes showing enraged protesters camping out in front of the temples of finance in Manhattan, demanding a rough kind of justice and restitution. Did the movie inspire the protests or was it inspired by the near-meltdown of the economy because of bankers’ excesses? Well, the basic story line seems to have been based on a short story written in the 1990s, but the movie’s release seems a serendipitous meeting of current events and artistic imagination.
The sense of outrage, though, is familiar, as is the rank inequality of the social arrangements. Everybody in the ghetto moves fast, a character tells Will at one point, which is why he stands out in the paradise of the rich because everybody there moves so slowly, like they had all the time in the world. But as the film shows, the rich in reality better move fast to equalize society, unless they want to share the fate of the wealthy in the film.
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Underlying “Tower Heist” is the fate of Bernie Madoff, who stole billions from friends, business associates and investors. In fact, he sought shelter in one such luxurious building in Manhattan before he was finally sentenced to time in prison for defrauding his clients.
Beneath the light-hearted caper in the film, lies the characters’ resentment of the rich whose lives they cushion with their hard work and attentions. That a man who “has it all” would even steal from them seems the greatest injustice of all.
It’s hard to believe the seed of the story was planted in 2005, when Murphy pitched an idea about a crime caper in Trump Tower starring an ensemble of black comedians. But again, truth proved stranger than fiction. And it is against the backdrop of the Madoff scandal that “Tower Heist” gains a measure of gravitas.
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