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MOVIE REVIEW: Supporting cast of 'Tower Heist' shines in revenge thriller

TOWER HEIST (PG-13)

2 and a half stars out of 4

For the third time in as many weeks, Hollywood has released a movie which is based on recent non-fictional economic events. The antagonist in "Tower Heist" (Alan Alda as Shaw) is a fat-cat investor and real-estate mogul who has orchestrated a series of elaborate Ponzi schemes that has separated thousands of people from their life savings. The only difference between Shaw and Bernie Madoff is that Shaw might get away with it.

The movie's principal plot point takes a while to arrive but is eminently relatable to almost every middle-class/working stiff in America. Rather than focus on Shaw's swindling of other millionaires (which he also does off-screen), the story zeroes in on the employees working at Shaw's Trump-ish high-rise apartment in Manhattan where he lives.

After Shaw is arrested by the FBI, general manager Josh (Ben Stiller) must inform his fellow employees that the pensions for which he was the custodian and gave to Shaw to invest for them might be gone forever. Josh likes Shaw and can't believe he'd purposefully deceive him and is cautiously optimistic that everything will work out. When that doesn't appear to be the case, Josh orchestrates a scheme of his own: break into Shaw's penthouse apartment and abscond with his secret emergency stash of cash.

In many ways -- mostly unfavorable -- "Tower Heist" is a typical Stiller flick. Josh is a nerdy, high-strung, Type-A guy who always seems to want to do the right thing but always gets in his own way. Here he plays essentially the same character from the "Night at the Museum" franchise only he is surrounded by real humans and not inanimate artifacts come to life.

While there is some comedy strewn throughout the movie -- a lot of it actually being funny -- "Tower Heist" is far more serious than the trailers indicate and at its heart is a revenge thriller.

As with most heist thrillers, it's only plausible and fun if there are a lot of colorful characters involved in the conspiracy and -- apart from the consistently sinister Alda -- this is the best part of the film.

Realizing he can't go it alone, Josh enlists the help of dim-bulb elevator Enrique (Michael Pena), his personality-challenged brother-in-law concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck), a hot-to-trot Jamaican maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) and -- for no apparent reason other than to provide more nerdy humor -- Matthew Broderick as the recently evicted tower tenant Fitzhugh.

Possessing the will to go forward but lacking the street smarts to pull it off, Josh brings in professional thief Slide (Eddie Murphy) to whip the rag-tag crew into shape. Brimming with sass and bug-eyed bluster, Murphy hasn't been this good since "Dreamgirls" or this funny since "48 Hrs."

The only bad part about Murphy here: his character shows up late and leaves early. Much the same can be said for Tea Leoni as sexy FBI agent Denham who might also be romantically interested in Josh. Coincidentally, Leoni and Stiller played similar, not-quite connecting characters in the superb "Flirting with Disaster" (which also included Alda).

The shaky plot is no doubt due to the committee of five screenwriters who, based on the handful of glaring inconsistencies, were never in the same room at the same time while collaborating. Director Brett Ratner delivers the same kind of ultra-slick, manufactured product veneer he lavished on the "Rush Hour" franchise and it makes a lot of sense why he was given the gig when considering the last scene.

The to-be-continued/non-ending is a monumentally frustrating rip-off and all but screams "sequel to follow." That said, a sequel could work if it were to be a prison-break type of affair with Alda, Stiller, Leoni and -- most importantly -- Murphy all returning. (Universal)