01/27/2012 11:03 am ET Updated Jan 27, 2012

'Man On A Ledge' The Latest In Hollywood's Populist Embrace

It's being marketed as an action-packed, high-wire thriller that offers nothing more complicated than a brief escape from the mid-winter doldrums. But "Man on a Ledge," opening this weekend, has more on its mind than adrenaline. It's actually the latest entry in a recent wave of big-budget features spreading a timely message of get-back-at-the-rich populism.

The film stars Sam Worthington as Nick Cassidy, an ex-cop who has been wrongly convicted of stealing a valuable diamond from a smug real-estate magnate played by Ed Harris. As Cassidy takes to the ledge of a high-rise hotel as part of an elaborate plan to reclaim the diamond and prove his innocence, a crowd of onlookers assembled beneath the hotel begins to cheer him on. And it isn't long before the audience itself is drawn into an us-vs.-them battle against the sleazy billionaire.

"One of the driving things in the story that always appealed to me is how difficult it is for the little guy to get a fair shake," the film's producer, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, told The Huffington Post over the phone this week. "The system keeps lining up against the little guy. The movie is meant to convey that in a completely entertaining way, but the underlying desperation that drives the decision-making is that you can't catch a break in the system if you're not a guy of privilege."

By channeling real-estate mogul Donald Trump, in all his blustering arrogance, Ed Harris makes himself the perfect target for multiplex audiences battered by the economy. But he's not the first onscreen businessman in recent months to assume the villainous mantle once reserved for Nazis, Communists and Islamic terrorists on screen. "Hollywood is full of a lot of people from the one percent," di Bonaventura said, "but it also tends to be a group of people that are very cognizant of the 99 percent."

Last November, Alan Alda played a softer but no less fraudulent billionaire in "Tower Heist," a film that starred Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick and Eddie Murphy as wronged working-class stiffs looking to settle the score. Director Brett Ratner meant the film to be more apolitical than activist, but its underdog story dovetailed nicely with the then-nascent Occupy Wall Street movement, something from which the filmmaker didn't shy away.

Hitting theaters a just a week before Ratner's film was "In Time," the Justin Timberlake-Amanda Seyfried thriller that served in part as a sci-fi allegory for the widening income gap. "The movie is a comment on the inequalities that are crushing 99 percent of the people in our society," one of the film's co-stars, Olivia Wilde, told Fox411 when the film premiered. "The movie really makes a statement that it's not right, and that in order for that to be dismantled, there's going to have to be a change at the kind of basic core moral level of society."

Around that time came "Margin Call," a star-studded drama that took a sober view of the country's woes, placing blame not on individual bankers but on a deregulated system that incentivizes greed and corruption. The film, nominated on Tuesday for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, was released at a time when Occupy protesters were digging in on Wall Street and around the country. "The film got to be part of that dialogue, which was pretty awesome," writer and director JC Chandor told The Huffington Post earlier this week. "No one was throwing Molotov cocktails, no one was being crazy -- people were actively trying to engage in something that happened in their lives and they wanted to speak out about it."

In "Arbitrage," which debuted earlier this week at the Sundance Film Festival, Richard Gere delivers one of the best performances of his career as a Bernie Madoff-style investment banker who cooks the books to save his family. The film focuses at least as much on human drama as it does on the mechanics of his financial crimes, thereby observing the cardinal rule of socially responsible films in Hollywood: create something that will fill theater seats.

"There are plenty of people here that want to push that type of message," di Bonaventura said. "Our frustration has been that, when you try to push something too hard, the audience looks at it like medicine instead of entertainment. So, for us, one of the things about 'Man on a Ledge' is that we had to first and foremost make sure it was really entertaining. And then you're allowed to slip in societal inflections of political positions. I've found in my career that the movies that have generally done the best at conveying some kind of social messages are not about social messages."