Why ‘Tower Heist’ Never Became the ‘Die Hard’ of Thanksgiving Movies

A large helping of director Brett Ratner certainly didn’t help
Why ‘Tower Heist’ Never Became the ‘Die Hard’ of Thanksgiving Movies

While there’s obviously no shortage of action movies that take place during the Christmas season — including like 98 percent of scripts written by Shane Black — there seems to be a glaring lack of Thanksgiving-set blockbusters for people to enjoy after immobilizing themselves with wine and tryptophan. Well, there was one; an action caper featuring a cast of comedy superstars. But the world has since turned its back on 2011’s Tower Heist.

The film stars Ben Stiller as the fired manager of a luxury apartment tower, who hatches an elaborate plan to break into the building’s penthouse. Why? To steal back millions in stolen funds that were swindled from the staff by one of the residents, a crooked Ponzi scheme mastermind played by Alan Alda. Also along for the ride are Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Michael Peña and Casey “How Am I the Worse Affleck Brother” Affleck. Plus, Precious star Gabourey Sidibe as a safe-cracking housekeeper and Téa Leoni as an FBI agent.

In some bizarro parallel universe where ketchup is green and Abraham Lincoln roundhouse-kicked John Wilkes Booth out of his theater box, perhaps Tower Heist is regularly celebrated as the movie that is to Thanksgiving what Die Hard is to Christmas. After all, the central premise of Tower Heist is extremely Thanksgiving-y, with Stiller using the Macy’s parade as a key part of his strategy. While the tower’s guards are distracted by giant inflatable Snoopys and Shreks, the would-be thieves are able to sneak in undetected. 

But there are more than a few reasons why this middling box office hit was seemingly rejected by society as a whole almost immediately. Sure it’s entertaining enough at times, but for one thing, it was directed by anthropomorphic genital wart shaped like a can of Monster Energy Drink, Brett Ratner. For another, the narrative twist that Stiller is too white to know how to steal stuff and thus has to turn to the one Black person he vaguely knows for help seems… not great.

Mostly though, Tower Heist has been completely overshadowed by its assorted bizarre behind-the-scenes stories. Let’s start with the weirdest one: This was supposed to be a movie about former president, current semi-cognizant lifeform made of hairspray and half-digested Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, Donald Trump.

The project actually began with Murphy, who also produced the film. According to Chris Rock, who sat in on the pitch meeting, Murphy first proposed “a kind of Black Ocean’s Eleven” that would star him and Rock, plus Dave Chappelle and Chris Tucker. And it would be about “a gang that robs Trump Tower.” Murphy specifically saw Trump as the movie’s villain — you know, the shifty rich guy character who’s secretly defrauding working-class folks? Keep in mind this was years before allegations of Trump-related fraud, including literal pyramid schemes, popped up in the news with alarming regularity. 

Murphy wanted the movie’s version of Trump to be like “Alan Rickman in Die Hard.” But, you know, less articulate and likable. Eventually, that element of the story was ditched (along with the all-Black leads) although the connection was still very apparent in the film’s shooting locations, which utilized the Trump International Hotel & Tower and Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. 

The film’s production notes even bragged about this fact, noting, “With the cooperation of Donald Trump, who allowed the production access to several of his high-end properties, the filmmakers were able to incorporate true luxury locales in the film.” The notes also described how “the real-estate mogul made a point of visiting the set during a break from taping his television series, The Celebrity Apprentice … to see how Ratner and the cast were faring.” And, not unlike was the case with The Devil’s Advocate, Trump seemingly had no clue that he was supposed to be the movie’s bad guy.

While Ratner would later claim that the movie would have been a bigger hit if it were still called Trump Heist as originally planned, seemingly no one did more damage to the reputation of Tower Heist than Ratner himself. On the film’s opening day, Ratner’s promotional efforts found him on Howard Stern’s show, “boasting of his skill at oral sex and of sleeping with a then-very-young Lindsay Lohan.” And later that night, at a screening of Tower Heist, Ratner randomly dropped an anti-gay slur when describing his filmmaking process, notoriously remarking: “Rehearsal is for f*gs.”

These incidents led to Ratner’s removal from a high-profile gig producing the Academy Awards — and just a day after the news of his exit hit, that year’s much-hyped host Eddie Murphy quit, seemingly in solidarity with the Tower Heist director. So, really, it’s no wonder why Tower Heist lost the top box office spot to Puss in Boots the following weekend.

If all that wasn’t enough, Tower Heist's planned release strategy was one of the most controversial in movie history. Originally, Universal planned on releasing Tower Heist in theaters, followed by release on “Comcast digital services in Atlanta and Portland, Ore.” just three weeks later, violating the typical window theatrical exclusivity. Fans would be able to watch the movie in the comfort of their homes for the low price of… $59.99? Seriously? The plan drew “immediate objections from exhibitors,” and after being pressured by theater chains, some of which threatened to boycott the movie entirely, the studio’s so-called “experiment” was indefinitely delayed.  

Maybe someday, a filmmaker, who’s not Brett Ratner, will make a great Thanksgiving action movie — until then, there’s always Planes, Trains and Automobiles and/or ThanksKilling

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter (if it still exists by the time you’re reading this).

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