Small Time Crooks

Review by Adam Blair

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.

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