Small Time Crooks
Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Hugh Grant, John Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, Elaine Stritch, George Grizzard. Screenplay: Woody Allen.

Woody Allen continues his late-90s slump with a movie whose primary virtue is that it recognizes and accepts its own extreme limitations. Critics will undoubtedly call Small Time Crooks a return to Woody's early, "funny" movies, such as Bananas and Take the Money and Run, and perhaps that's true—that is to say, perhaps after a singularly acerbic string of barely masked self-flagellations (Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, Sweet and Lowdown), the Woodman was ready to lighten up. The same arguments were made about 1993's Manhattan Murder Mystery, a frothy, purposefully thin caper comedy that followed quickly upon the dark Alice and Shadows and Fog and the outright searing Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives.

Whereas Manhattan Murder Mystery tapped nicely into the still-warm chemistry between Woody and longtime leading lady Diane Keaton, Small Time Crooks lacks any ounce of genuine feeling. Not only do the characters express little tenderness for one another, the movie itself, photographed by Zhao Fei, tends to look at them rather unsparingly. The women in particular look haggard, zaftig, and overdressed. Characters are routinely corralled into the same, crowded long shots, creating a static, claustrophobic atmosphere that only underlines the tired staginess of the jokes and the interchangeability of several of the principal parts. Jon Lovitz and Michael Rapaport, for example, both sometime assets to film comedies, are not only given little to do, but their minimal characters so nearly duplicate one another that this strikingly lightweight and smallish movie nonetheless feels overly cluttered.

Tracey Ullman has the closest thing to a lead part, playing opposite her director as Frenchy and Ray Winkler, a married couple seeking to find a fortune. Ray's petty-robbery scheme is a total bust—in comic as well as narrative terms, since the whole sequence skimps on laughs—but the cookie-baking venture that Ullman's character undertakes as a diversionary front for Allen's misdeeds unpredictably becomes a major windfall. The couple is suddenly swimming in dough (see, sometimes my jokes aren't any better than Woody's), but the problem that pursues them through the rest of the film is that they have no idea how to live as moneyed people. They fill their apartment with appalling tchotchkes and make incredibly coarse and usually unwitting admissions of their own worldly ignorance. Ray doesn't care; he only has eyes for the money. But Frenchy actually wants to become a "better," more sophisticated person and thinks that her wealth offers the chance to do so.

Again, though Woody Allen has historically generated big payoffs from plotlines as sketchy as this one, Small Time Crooks feels dashed-off, careless, and lacking any investment from its own creator. (It is helpful to remember that this film premiered a mere five months after Sweet and Lowdown, not generally a sign of slavish attention to detail.) Ullman, an Allen vet from Bullets Over Broadway, is caught in a tight spot as the performer working hardest to animate the rote proceedings; her energy, rather than providing a saving grace, increasingly seems mannered and out of place in a film that is otherwise so slack and modest. Hugh Grant fares best out of the tiny cast, likely because his part as a semi-snooty Brit hired by Frenchy to train her and Ray in the Finer Things allows him to spin another of his trademark dithery bozos. Grant is utterly within his comfort zone, not at all hemmed in by the smallness of the part or the picture, and he even gets a chance to limn his typical bewildered schtick with a new and well-played streak of cunning. By contrast, bigger and more varied talents like the two Elaines, Stritch and May, are visibly constrained by their strange, uninteresting parts that take no real advantage of what these gifted players could have offered.

It's hard to begrudge Woody the impulse to lower his sights and deliver some unpretentious laughs, but it seems wrong to me to divide his canon into the movies that were "funny" and those that weren't. When this auteur is really firing on all cylinders—as in both Crimes and Husbands as well as Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo and the career-capping Hannah and Her Sisters—he manages to be funny, heartbreaking, serious, sad, and wise all at the same moments. To call Small Time Crooks a "funny" movie is not entirely off-base—the capable cast does squeeze more laughs out of this juiceless creation than they might have with a less seasoned director—but it also sounds like a shorthand euphemism for the fact that Woody Allen isn't trying to do anything in this film. He's possessed of such cinematic talent that even his weakest movies are easy enough to watch, and I still have not seriously entertained the thought of skipping any of his new films, but Small Time Crooks raises again the question of whether he deserves the loyalty of his dwindling viewership. He's not doing much to repay our commitment, and that, in the film world, is its own form of crookery. Grade: C+

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Tracey Ullman

Other Awards:
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (May)

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