Ponzi scheme victims swindle the swindler in ‘Tower Heist’

HOLLYWOOD'S long-overdue pimp-slap of loathsome pension-swindler Bernie Madoff has finally arrived, and it's surprisingly good.

I say surprisingly because while we still have plutocrats and swindlers and a really bad economy as we did back in the 1930s and 1940s, we don't have Preston Sturges or Frank Capra.

We have Bret Ratner, whose recent contributions to populist socioeconomic commentary include "X: Men: The Last Stand" and "Rush Hour 3."

And let's not single out Mr. Ratner. Hollywood, in general, has spent most of the bubble era hyping great wealth and jackpot payoffs, and inviting viewers to do the same.

I've long believed that Hollywood contributed to the housing bubble by advancing, in its movies, the idea that everybody, regardless of job or income, lived in a $1 million house.

Check out the opening shot of "Tower Heist" - a close-up of a $100 bill, which pulls back to reveal itself as the painted bottom of a penthouse swimming pool.

This could have been the establishing shot of just about any money-worshipping movie of the past 20 years, but in "Tower Heist" it introduces us to the villain.

He's Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Madoff-like figure who occupies the top floor of a ritzy condo building. His reputation for amazing investment returns is so good and so longstanding that the building manager (Ben Stiller) turns over control of the tower employees' pension fund to Shaw.

Then, poof, it's gone - the FBI (in the person of Tea Leoni) arrests Shaw and accuses him of running a Ponzi scheme, and the employees realize their only hope of retrieving their money is to steal it back.

This is an irresistible premise, really, and an upgrade over the "Ocean's" series, which was mostly one group of Armani-wearing guys stealing from another.

The perpetrators in "Heist" are less glamorous but easier to relate to. Ratner does a nice job sketching them - a streetwise crime adviser (Eddie Murphy), a sad-sack numbers guy (Matthew Broderick), a tech guy (Michael Pena), a safecracker (Gabourey Sidibe) and the resident whiner (Casey Affleck).

There's a nice ensemble feel, the cast is easy to root for, and although Ratner goes big and broad during the finale (Thanksgiving Day Parade), interest in the revenge plot or its crew never flags.

Along the way, we welcome the return of some familiar faces. Alda makes a nice fake Madoff. He gets that his character's casually ruthless exercise of privilege and entitlement makes him wonderfully hateable.

And Leoni is on screen just long enough to remind us that she's a great screen comedian, woefully underemployed these days.

Tower Heist

Directed by Brett Ratner. With Matthew Broderick, Alan Alda, Gabourey Sidibe, Judd Hirsch, Casey Affleck, Tea Leoni, Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, Michael Peña. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 44 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for language and sexual content).