Small Time Crooks
directed by Woody Allen
(Dreamworks, 2000)

I have to admit, if Woody Allen's name weren't attached to Small Time Crooks, most of the actors I love in the film would have never looked twice. It's a pretty lightweight movie, as many of Allen's films have been lately, given some heft by what feels like inspired ad-libbing and some casting choices with spark.

Allen's films are a chance to see some of your favorite people in roles other directors would never hand them. Small Time Crooks has some of the flashes of goofiness Allen perfected in earlier movies and, if that kind of humor is your thing, if you prefer a Woody Allen that's a little less neurotic, then Small Time Crooks is closer to offbeat 1960s Woody than trying-really-hard 1990s Woody.

This time around, he's Ray Winkler, a guy who truly wants to be a criminal mastermind but can't quite wrap his brain around the details. His wife, the former exotic dancer Frenchy Fox (Tracey Ullman), has stuck by him, but has doubts that her dishwasher husband can pull them into the lifestyle of the rich and famous she so yearns for. But Ray has one more great idea: with two buddies from prison, they'll buy a little business, drill underneath the street to the bank vault next door, split the haul and retire to Miami.

The scary thing is, Ray is the one with the brains. His cohorts are Tommy (Tony Darrow) and Denny (Michael Rapaport), guys who can manage getting dressed in the morning, if they get dressed in the morning, but little else. Frenchy agrees to run a cookie-baking business in the storefront to provide a cover, the guys buy a bunch of drilling tools and everyone gets down to business.

It's this part of Small Time Crooks that charms, with long, single-take scenes of brilliant back-and-forth between Ray and Frenchy, little toss-off lines that lots of other movies would use as the punchline but here are part of the flow. ("Who is it?" an annoyed Frenchy yells as Ray comes in the apartment door. "Who do you think it is?" Ray yells back. "Oh, no, it's the Pope. I've always wanted to see your apartment.")

To everyone's surprise, the cookie business becomes phenomenally successful. They bring Frenchy's dim cousin May (a fantastic Elaine May, who made her mark as half of the great Nichols & May comedy team) into the fold -- but, with her miscues and a little help from a neighborhood cop, they decide to dump the robbery plan and franchise the cookie business.

Earning money the honest way, though, is depressing for Ray. All he wanted was enough money to live in Miami near the dog tracks. Now, a year later, he has to show up at work every day. For Frenchy -- now Frances -- the piles of dough, the green kind, are a godsend. She can buy as many clothes as Princess Di, she can decorate her penthouse apartment to her own dubious taste, she can indulge every whim. She's having more fun, especially with her Henry Higgins of an art dealer, David (Hugh Grant), but Ray is miserable.

And it's not nearly as much fun for us, either. I found myself yearning for more with May and for the little moments with socialite Chi Chi Potter (Elaine Stritch, a theater actor who has one of my favorite voices). And I found myself impatiently waiting for the other shoe to drop. It does -- rather awkwardly -- but Allen still has enough at the end to pull out a little surprise that rescues some routine comedy and wraps it into a little gift of his trademark humor.

Some people aren't made for the big time, and Ray and Frenchy are much more entertaining as small-time crooks than big-time moguls.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 21 July 2001

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