SMALL TIME CROOKS(director/writer: Woody Allen; cinematographer: Zhao Fei; editor: Alisa Lepselter; cast: Woody Allen (Ray Winkler), Tracey Ullman (Frenchy), Tony Darrow (Tommy), Hugh Grant (David), George Grizzard (George Blint), Jon Lovitz (Benny), Elaine May (May), Michael Rapaport (Denny), Elaine Stritch (Chi Chi Potter); Runtime: 94; Dreamworks SKG; 2000)
“There are just enough Woody sight gags and one-liners for this film to keep its head above water.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
“Small Time Crooks” is a small time comedy, nourished by getting a fast start off the gate with some pretty familiar comedy routines — it starts off paying homage to the Italian film “Big Deal on Madonna Street.” But, it is not able to sustain its fast-paced comedy hi-jinks after the first half hour and what’s worst, it falls into a predictable way of telling the story which ends the film on a rather pedestrian note. This film had the look of something made in a film factory, without an edge to the routine comedy sequences. But to its credit…it had a lot of laughs in it.
It gets by because the characters are likable crooks and funny in a moronic way. Woody and Tracy had some good chemistry together as a lowlife husband and wife team, and Woody has that nebbish part down pat by now which he has been living off for the last 20 years. He seems to have given up being an artistic filmmaker (I doubt if he ever was committed to being one, but he did like Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries,” and at one time attempted to make Bergman-quality films). He is now best seen as a merchandiser of films, cranking them out once a year with a banker’s regularity. He’s certainly no risk taker in this film, knowing his audience and giving them what they want might as well be his motto. He is banking on the audience cravings for a few of his patented one-liners to give them a comedy fix until his next predictable work. There seems to be no incentive for him to change now, as his audience wants him to keep cranking out the same stuff he’s been doing for years and he doesn’t seem to have any sparkle in him to do something different.
Woody’s an ex-con named Ray Winkler who has come up with a genius plan to get rich. His wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), the former New Jersey exotic dancer, immediately guesses — you plan to rob a bank! He asks her for $6,000 that he needs for his scheme to rent a vacant pizza storefront and buy equipment to tunnel into the bank vault two doors down. There are two other partners who come by with their share of the money to go into Woody’s brilliant scheme: Denny (Rapaport), a dumb truck driver, and Tommy (Darrow), a dumb human being. Another dumb partner will be added later when Woody finds the store has been leased to someone who plans to open a flower shop. When Woody comes calling to sweet talk that person out of the lease, it turns out to be his former prison mate, Ben (Lovitz). Ben hoped to use the store to ply his trade of arson for insurance, which he says helped him put two kids through college. But Woody persuades him to give up that lucrative profession to become partners in his more lucrative scheme.
Ray and Frenchy open up a cookie shop as a cover for the robbery but the cookie business takes off beyond their wildest dreams and becomes the talk of the city, while the tunneling runs into brain drainage problems from these inept crooks. This provides the sharpest and funniest comedy in the film: as they tunnel in the wrong direction, rupture a water main with their drilling, wear their miner’s hard hat backward imitating the stylish way some urban kids wear their baseball caps, thereby the light shines behind them so they can’t see ahead, and the final stupidity is when Frenchy’s dumb cousin May (Elaine May), hired to help wait on the customers in the now busy store, tells a cop about the tunneling in the basement being a business expansion move. Naturally, the heist fizzles. But the cookie business miraculously becomes a smash hit and is franchised so that within a short period Ray and Frenchy become filthy rich.
Here’s where this sweet and silly story plunges off the comedy map, as it tries to show how Tracy now wants to grow as a person and join the highbrows and get some culture. But she can’t because she still remains a vulgar person inside despite her new outward trappings. While Woody takes the opposite track, bored by his new life-style, wanting only to get away from eating snails and to go back to eating cheese burghers. He also would rather go to Miami and be swimming than attending socialite parties and going to the ballet and art museums. The running gag here is how cheap their taste is in their furnishings, decorations, clothes, and vocabulary, before and after becoming rich.
Into the picture comes David (Grant), an intellectual snob and an unscrupulous art dealer which is quite a combination. They meet at one of their ritzy gatherings in their Park Ave. apartment to raise money for charity. He is talked into becoming the teacher of the arts to Tracy, but without her suspecting it he plans to rip her off for huge sums of money. In the meantime, he influences her to buy schlock art that he can’t sell to anyone else. The movie looses its caper focus and shows how the Winklers try to join the social elites and the problems they run into, as their money can’t seem to buy them happiness or acceptance.
The couple will divorce with Tracy going to Europe with Grant to get some culture, but forced to return when her franchise empire crumbles because her accountants are swindlers. While Woody goes back to doing what he does best, as he uses Elaine May’s help to steal a valuable necklace at a party given by some of his new aristocratic friends.
This results in a fluff film with a twisted message about money not being important to the couple, which seems like an out of the place message since money is all the couple talks about and seem to care about as a means for their happiness. But this is a film that will only succeed if it can make you laugh, and the message wrongly or rightly perceived might as well have not been sent. There are just enough Woody sight gags and one-liners for this film to keep its head above water. For example, one gag goes like this: “Hey, did you hear the one about that Polish car pool that met at their workplace!!!” That’s one of the many yuks you’ll get with Woody’s 29th film, which will soon lose its place in the heap of mediocrity he is piling up after his 1970s heyday period of Love and Death (1975) and Annie Hall (1977).
REVIEWED ON 6/9/2000 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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