Small Time Crooks
by Jon Bastian
Woody Allen takes the money and runs with it.
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Those of you who read my review of Sweet and Lowdown know that I ripped Woody Allen a new one, bemoaning his apparent loss of storytelling talent. I was echoing a character in Stardust Memories: “I liked his earlier, funny ones.” Well, actually, I liked his later, darkly funny ones — Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bullets Over Broadway, even Mighty Aphrodite. Then, with Celebrity and Sweet and Lowdown, something happened. Suddenly, Woody Allen made two movies that weren’t any fun. Celebrity seemed to be trying too hard to be cynical, while Sweet and Lowdown was recycled Woody Allen, except that he chose to recycle the wrong shtick.
Small Time Crooks changes all that. The Woodman is back in form with a light, character driven comedy that hits all the right notes. It’s actually a hard film to review because there are such nice surprises in it. I can’t say too much without giving away several completely unexpectable twists and turns. Suffice it to say that we start out with a classic heist/caper film that literally takes a left turn and becomes something even more fun.
Woody Allen plays Ray Winkler, a decidedly blue-collar schlub who’s done a little time for a little crime that he failed to pull off. He’s married to Frances “Frenchy” Fox (Tracey Ullman), an ex-stripper turned manicurist, and such is their life until the day Ray comes home with a brilliant plan. Well, he thinks it’s brilliant. He’s discovered an out of business pizza place three doors down from a bank and wants to rent the storefront, then tunnel into the bank and scrape the vault clean. Frenchy isn’t sold on the idea at first but finally relents, becoming their front person by running a cookie store while Ray and his partners (Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow) do their digging in the basement. But, the cookie store’s business takes off like gangbusters, Ray and company are truly incompetent and Frenchy’s cousin, May (Elaine May in a rare screen appearance), comes in to help out. Since May is probably stupider than all of Ray’s gang put together, her low-watt IQ and loose lips threaten to sink the entire plan — if a burst water main downstairs doesn’t do it first.
And that’s just act one. It’s at the end of this act that the first of many surprises is sprung. What happens makes perfect sense and you won’t see it coming. It propels Ray and Frenchy into an entirely different world, and threatens to drive a wedge between the two of them. From clever caper film we move into familiar Woody Allen territory, comedy of manners, and the comedy is hilarious.
As always, Allen draws together a strong ensemble cast that is a delight to watch. Michael Rapaport, who was the other man in Mighty Aphrodite, has a face that’s perfect for playing too stupid to know he’s an idiot, and Jon Lovitz gets in some choice bon mots as a very matter-of-fact arsonist. Hugh Grant shows up as a two-faced art dealer hired by Frenchy to teach her and Ray some kultcha and Elaine Stritch has a cameo as a richer than Croesus socialite. Woody Allen and Tracey Ullman have amazingly good chemistry together. On screen, the two of them feel like they really have been married twenty-five years, with Ray threatening retribution that Frenchy knows will never come. The standout, though, is Elaine May, who has all the best deadpan jokes, the kind of one-liners that can only come from an extremely stupid character but that have their own twisted absolute logic. Her excuse for not eating canapés served on toothpicks makes perfect sense, even if it is about the most unintelligent thing anyone has ever said. It’s a shame May hasn’t done more work in front of the camera. If you’re familiar with her stand-up work with Mike Nichols, you know she’s a brilliant comedienne and a very intelligent person. Her appearance here is the kind of movie dumb that only a really smart actor can pull off — and she looks nowhere near her age of, well, past what used to be mandatory retirement. I hope Allen — or anyone — uses her again soon.
Small Time Crooks is more story than message, but if there is a moral, it’s a two-parter. First, people can’t become who they’re not and still be happy. Second, it’s not the small time crooks you have to watch out for. The real damage is done by the thieves with suits and degrees.
Many artists show an obsession for the decade in which they grew up, and Allen is no exception. He likes to return to the 1930’s as a setting (Radio Days, Sweet and Lowdown) or create screwball comedies that harken back to Preston Sturgis (Mighty Aphrodite, Bullets Over Broadway). Here, he’s taken the latter route and on that trip has somehow found his way back to form. As always, no one has any idea what his next project will be, but “Mr. Prolific” is no doubt shooting or editing it right now. Let’s hope he continues back onto the path of greatness and leaves his recent mistakes behind. If Small Time Crooks is any indication, this just may be what’s happening.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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