'Tower Heist'

Universal Pictures

A wiseass Eddie Murphy delivers in this crowd-pleasing caper.

Brett Ratner's comic caper about a bunch of co-workers who turn the tables on a Bernie Madoff type who has swindled them out of their pensions is snappy, well cast and streetwise in a well-upholstered New York sort of way, and it is peppered with smart-mouthed sass, much of it supplied by Eddie Murphy. This smoothly engineered crowd-pleaser should fulfill its function just fine through Thanksgiving and beyond.

A whole different film with the same plot and cast of characters could have been made that would have mined the raw grievances of people who have lost their jobs or life savings in the wake of the money troubles of the past three years, and it could even have been a comedy. But Ratner and screenwriters Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson use the financial mayhem as a plot trigger for an elaborate scheme that, however far-fetched, is still irresistible.

The opening shot is a stunner, a view straight down at Ben Franklin's $100 face gracing the bottom of the swimming pool atop the Tower, Manhattan's most expensive residential spire (played by Trump Tower Columbus Circle, formerly the Gulf + Western Building). Out of it emerges Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the self-satisfied Tower owner and investment king known for the handsome returns he always delivers to his clientele.

Building GM Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) runs the facility like a cool ship's captain, monitoring the innumerable employees, catering to the privileged residents and keeping an eye on comings and goings via a battery of video screens. The melting pot of supporting players swings into view with the speed of passengers bounding off a carousel: We'll soon meet characters played by Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Judd Hirsch, Michael Pena, Stephen McKinley Henderson and, later, Gabourey Sidibe. Then there's the beloved doorman, Lester (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who announces he'll be hanging up his cap in a year.

Lester, like many others, has given his life savings to Shaw, who this day is nailed by the Feds, led by Special Agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), for securities fraud. It falls to Josh to inform the staff that their pensions have been wiped out. After the staff goes to Shaw's penthouse and Josh takes a golf club to Shaw's Ferrari -- parked where a grand piano normally might be -- they are fired.

Soon, the FBI agent drunkenly reveals to Josh that Shaw has $20 million stashed away, and Josh thinks he knows precisely where in the Tower it is. He reconvenes his trusted crew and recruits a real criminal, Slide (Murphy), to help.

With Murphy's full entrance at the 40-minute mark, the film's energy and amusement level kick up a few notches, at least for a while. This is the rude, confrontational, wiseass Murphy audiences have nearly forgotten after all the silly kid comedies and heavy-makeup outings. Once the break-in is underway, however -- during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, no less -- the enjoyment slips for several reasons: Murphy becomes neutered, the comedy ebbs and the logistics of the heist become too improbable and laborious. If the filmmakers had been able to embody in the climax the sense of outrage and injustice inherent in the movie's premise, they really would have had something. As it is, there's inevitable satisfaction with the result, but it's glib.

Stiller plays the straight man effectively. Just a bit more layering in the writing of his character, giving Josh a bottom, might have given the film heft.

But Heist, shot sharply by Dante Spinotti, does remind that it has been a long time -- the 1970s, really -- since this sort of star-laden caper film was in fashion, the Ocean's movies being notable exceptions. Ratner pulls it off with relish and amiable levity.

Release date Nov. 4 (Universal)
Cast Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy
Director Brett Ratner
Screenwriters Ted Griffin, Jeff Nathanson
Producers Brian Grazer, Eddie Murphy, Kim Roth
Rated PG-13, 104 minutes

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