Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, Elaine
May, Michael Rapaport, Jon Lovitz
Rated PG, 94 minutes. (2000)
Imagine, if you will, a parallel universe. In this alternate
reality, the flukey, hit-or-miss nature of show business prevents
Woody Allen from becoming the ultra-successful playwright/filmmaker/auteur
he is in our world. Alternate-World Woody grinds away as a
mildly successful standup comic, never breaking into the top
ranks of show business, much less the New York intelligentsia
he so longs to join. (Of course, in this universe he saves
himself, Mia Farrow and various children a lot of heartache,
but that's another story).
Imagine that this Woody, now in his 60s, finally gets the
chance to make his first movie. He convinces talented actors
to work for him and casts himself in the starring role, despite
his nebbishy looks and limited acting range. The movie is
a slight, sloppy comedy called Small Time Crooks, and
guess what? It sinks with barely a murmur. Alternate-World
critics and audiences, without the memory of the dozen or
so classics that our Woody has produced, are singularly unimpressed.
All of which is a long way of saying that Small Time Crooks,
Real-World Woody's 2000 movie, is a lot less than meets the
eye. It didn't leave me feeling cheated or angry, the way
Celebrity and Everyone Says I Love You and
Bullets Over Broadway did. It's not impressively executed
but sour, like Deconstructing Harry or Mighty Aphrodite.
It's something I never thought a Woody Allen movie, good or
bad, could be: bland. It's also oversimplified and overemphatic,
hammering home every joke two and three times.
Allen plays Ray, a loserish ex-con with what he thinks is
a brilliant idea: lease a store a few doors down from a bank,
tunnel under the vault and make off with the loot. His brassy
blonde wife Frenchy (Tracy Ullman) doesn't think much of the
plan - and it's clear she's the boss in this family. She reluctantly
agrees, though, and Allen, along with his less-than-brilliant
cohorts (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow and Jon Lovitz) begin
digging in the basement.
The joke - probably the best one in the film - is that the
homemade cookies Frenchy sells upstairs, as a front for the
heist, are so delicious that the shop becomes an overnight
success, with lines of hungry customers down the block. The
robbery is soon abandoned for the much more lucrative prospect
of building a corporate empire from Frenchy's cookies.
This first third of the movie is the strongest section, with
Allen and the amazing Ullman sparring like a latter-day Ralph
and Alice Kramden amid plenty of broad physical humor. Rapaport
and Lovitz have some nice moments, and these early scenes
play like a loose, amusing improv sketch. I'm probably thinking
about improv because of delicious Elaine May, who helps out
in the cookie shop but is a few Oreos short of a box herself.
She blurts out whatever's on her extremely literal mind, and
her Gracie Allen-ish antics nearly give the whole game away.
The movie takes a sharp wrong turn, however, as the newly
nouveau riche couple tries to gain "class" along
with their newfound wealth. Frenchy, now Frances, is especially
anxious to improve herself, and enlists smarmily charming
Hugh Grant to be her own personal Henry Higgins. Ray, unimpressed
with high society, stubbornly resists her new intellectual
pretensions (two words he probably can't even spell).
There have been comedies - even some good ones - with equally
thin, or thinner, plots (Ghostbusters, anyone?). With
something like this it's all about the fun you have along
the way, and Small Time Crooks is short on fun. One
of the key problems is that Woody himself isn't the most ingenious
comic actor in the world. An actor like professional lowlife
Joe Pesci or Ullman's old TV costar Dan Castellaneta (the
voice of Homer Simpson) would have brought something more
to Woody's lovable loser role.
But Woody's whiny shtick is getting tired. You don't notice
it as much in the beginning because Ullman (and to a certain
extent May, with whom he has some funny scenes later in the
movie) are both so vibrant that he seems like he's acting
by simply reacting. But the mechanics of the plot keep Allen
and Ullman separated for much of the second half of the movie,
and neither is as good apart as they are together.
Another problem is that Allen is not only picking up the
plots of earlier comedies, he's picking up the attitudes,
virtually unchanged. In today's world, with 22-year-old dot-com
billionaires springing up like kudzu, the supposed "bad
taste" of Ray and Frenchy seems positively refined. Granted,
it's hard to make a comedy about the clash of old and new
money when the old money means it was made way back in the
1980s. Allen may be aware of this, which is one reason he
seems to be telling the same joke (Look at these silly parvenus
make fools of themselves!) over and over.
And Woody himself still seems a bit awed by "high society."
The satire of the old money establishment - a staple of 1930s
screwball comedies, where the rich are portrayed as dizzy
if not actually dumb - is muted and mild here. Hugh Grant
is a snobby cad and Elaine Stritch is a silly socialite, but
the movie ends up endorsing Ray's point of view - that he
and Frenchy are lower class, they always will be and besides,
they're happier that way.
Allen could be making an ironic point here, but I don't think
he is. Like the worst of his movies (Stardust Memories,
Interiors, parts of Manhattan) he's more than a
little condescending towards the "little people"
- in the movie and in the audience. Small Time Crooks
is nowhere near as bad as those movies, but it's also not
nearly as memorable.