There's a line in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories
delivered by a fan who has just broken into his hotel room and surprises
him in bed, "Empty sex is better than no sex at all, right?" The same
thing could be said of Woody's latest comedy, Small Time Crooks.
Even Woody Allen at his worst is still better than most.
Small Time Crooks tells the story of Ray (Allen),
an ex-con, who must convince his back-talking wife, Frenchy (Tracey
Ullman), to invest their savings into Ray's latest scheme - robbing
a bank by tunneling under its neighboring storefront, which they buy
and convert to a cookie shop. Frenchy, it turns out, has a knack for
the cookie dough, while Ray, and his gaggle of half-wit crooks, totally
botch the robbery. The cookie shop turns into an empire, revealed
as a segment of 60 Minutes, (which includes a delightful Steve Kroft
cameo), and suddenly, Frenchy and Ray, and the gaggle of half-wits,
In Woody's older comedies like, say, Take the Money
and Run, the film would end there, but, as it turns out, that's
only the set-up for a different story, one that includes a subtle
debate about class distinction. Ray and Frenchy are suddenly grossly
wealthy, and because of that, expected to suddenly have taste. Of
course, like Roseanne, Donald Trump, or even Elvis, wealth has nothing
to do with good taste.
Ray misses his old life as a small time crook, Frenchy yearns for
something higher, aching to belong to high society. She warns Ray
that if she continues to grow and he doesn't, their relationship will
Enter one of Woody Allen's favorite targets - an intellectual/art
dealer named David (Hugh Grant), who ends up being hired by Frenchy
for lessons in good taste. But, naturally, David is as crooked as
they come. Frenchy learns her lesson, all right. The small time crooks,
as it turns out, are fairly harmless, compared to the big time crooks
who do the real damage to people who don't know any better.
Woody Allen's films have often tackled this subject
in various forms -- he clearly has a love/hate relationship with the
upper class set to which he now belongs. One look at his parents (in
Wild Man Blues, a documentary on Allen's concert tour of Europe)
and it's easy to spot from whence Allen came and how wildly different
it is from, say, art openings at the Whitney. Some of his films are
about the outsiders (Broadway Danny Rose) but most have been
about insiders, high class white people who live on the Upper East
Side (Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, etc.). Small
Time Crooks is at once a slap in the face and homage to "his people,"
those who can't identify authors and artists but who have a passion
for the simple things, like greasy Chinese food.
What makes Small Time Crooks enjoyable is that
it is flat out hilarious, some of the best comedy to hit the screen
in years, with Allen himself returning to rare form in a slapstick
role that makes you remember just how funny he really can be.
with all of Woody Allen's films, there are those two or three exceptional
performances that often earn Oscars. Here, there is the comedic genius
that is Tracey Ullman. As Frenchy, Ullman owns this picture - with
a performance so nuanced and multi-dimensional you can't imagine why
she isn't used more. Ullman's close competition is the elusive Elaine
May in the supporting role of "May," a half-wit, Gracie Allen type.
Elaine May is one of the most brilliant writers Hollywood has ever
had the fortune of employing, often hired to punch up unfunny scripts
but remaining mostly uncredited (notably with Tootsie). Her
directorial career was shut down with the costly bomb, Ishtar,
a genuinely funny film that was unfairly criticized (and includes
one of the funniest lines ever written, "It takes a lot of courage
to have nothing at your age!"). Had the campaign to sink Ishtar
not been as successful, Elaine May might be where Penny Marshall or
Nora Ephron are.
Small Time Crooks is the last Woody Allen film
made with longtime producing partner, Jean Doumanian, and the first
under his new DreamWorks contract. DreamWorks will likely give Allen's
films their due, publicity-wise. Even still, his films are expected
to make most of their money overseas.
Although Small Time Crooks isn't Allen's best,
it certainly isn't his worst either. He works with a devoted team
who help make him look good, and that includes his casting directors,
Juliet Taylor and Laura Rosenthal, his brilliant cinematographer of
late, Fei Zhao, and here, most especially, his costume designer, Suzanne
McCabe, responsible for draping Allen and Ullman in some of the cheesiest
polyester ensembles ever created.
In an odd sort of way, Small Time Crooks is
an expression of one of Woody Allen's most famous commentaries on
life - that good fortune is entirely based on luck. You could be trying
to rob a bank and end up a millionaire selling great cookies. You
could be a shy kid with a knack for telling jokes and end up one of
America's greatest directors. What clearly matters to Ray and Frenchy,
and probably to Woody Allen, isn't what you do, but whom you're lucky
enough to hook up with, and whether or not you like their turkey meatballs