Small Time Crooks (2000)
Directed by Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Hugh Grant, Tony Darrow, Michael Rapaport, Jon Lovitz, Elaine Stritch, George Grizzard.
2000 95 minutes
Rated: (for mild profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 22, 2000.
Woody Allen, one of the most critically admired, but publically underrated, filmmakers working today, makes one film a year, and almost without fail, they are small, but memorable and well-acted, gems. Allen has a talent for dialogue and getting the best out of his performers (just look at Mira Sorvino's brilliant, Oscar-winning turn in 1995's "Mighty Aphrodite"), and in his comedies, is as quick and snappy in his wordplay as they come.
Allen's latest picture, "Small Time Crooks," is the type of sharp-witted and smart caper comedy that you would expect from him, similar to 1993's "Manhattan Murder Mystery" and 1971's "Bananas," with a hint of 1977's "Annie Hall" thrown in for bittersweet measure. There is always a joy that goes along with watching Allen's films, and a comfort, too, due to their often similar format, each one an obvious tribute from someone who is in love with the movies as much as I am.
Ray (Woody Allen) and Frenchy Winkler (Tracey Ullman) have been married for years, living day to day and paycheck to paycheck (he as a dishwasher, she as a manicurist) in their Manhattan apartment. An ex-crook who once did time for theft, Ray is always dreaming of the most elaborate or crazy schemes on how they can get more money, and while a sassy straight-shooter who tells it like it is, Frenchy finds herself consistently going along with his plans, no matter how risky, because she loves him. So when Ray tells French about his latest, and most dangerous, plan yet, in which they are going to buy out a closed-down pizza shop so they can shovel through the ground and rob the back next door, she quickly dismisses the idea, but soon goes along with it. Partnered with Tommy (Tony Darrow), former cellmate Benny (Jon Lovitz), and dimwitted Denny (Michael Rapaport), they plan to cut the money equally between them once they get to it. In the meantime, to distract the public, Frenchy acts as a cookie maker in the front of the shop, and unforseeably, her baking becomes the overnight sensation of the city.
Switch to a year later, Ray and Frenchy's bank heist plans have fallen through, and instead, they have become millionaires overnight, the owners of the most successful cookie franchise in the area, Sunset Cookies. But as their wealth dramatically rises, Frenchy yearns to become a sophisticated socialite, while Ray still prefers the simpler things in life. For the Winkler's, their relationship, and their goals in life, have become as distant as night and day.
The pleasure that comes from watching "Small Time Crooks" lies prominently in its reliably fresh screenplay. Although some may falsely accuse Woody Allen of making the same basic movie over and over, that is far from the truth, as each of his films may have the markings of himself as a filmmaker, but are almost consistently satisfying and creative, a refreshing retreat from today's increasingly boring big-budget Hollywood movies. Allen not only has a way with writing intelligent characters, but he gives his top-notch actors a chance to truly shine and prove their talent. Relatively underappreciated actors such as the aforementioned Sorvino, Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri (1994's "Bullets Over Broadway"), Kirstie Alley (1997's "Deconstructing Harry"), and Juliette Lewis (1992's "Husbands & Wives") have all been given the chance to do superb work in recent Allen endeavors.
In "Small Time Crooks," the champion performers are Tracey Ullman, as Ray's wife Frenchy, and Elaine May, as Frenchy's dim-bulb, sweet-natured cousin. Ullman (an Emmy-award winning actress for HBO's "Tracey Takes On...") conveys a genuine delight for acting here, and is equipped with the second central role, not to mention the flashiest, in the film. Her fast-tongued line deliveries to Allen are often hysterically funny and honest, and while Frenchy and Ray are involved in a rocky marriage, both she and Allen believably seem like two people who are in love with each other.
As with many of Allen's actors, Elaine May deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination next year for her delightful, and lovable, turn as May, who is brought into the action when Frenchy (May's cousin) hires her to help sell the cookies while Ray and his comrades sneakily dig and drill in the back, dead set on finding their way to the bank through the ground. Ray and Frenchy figure May is so ditzy that she won't realize what is going on, but when asked by customers about the racket in the back, she blindly tells them the matter-of-fact truth. A climactic scene, set at the home of a wealthy couple (Elaine Stritch, George Grizzard) whom Ray plans to swap a highly valuable jewel necklace from, and who uses May as a coverup downstairs at the party, gains much of its momentum not only from Allen's comic timing, but from May's charm and effortless comedic abilities. In the only other major role, Hugh Grant stars as David, a British aristocrat whom Frenchy hires to educate her on art and culture.
Despite its advertising, "Small Time Crooks" is not a film about a bank heist (that ultimately only takes up the first half-hour of the picture), but a truly winning comedy about a couple whose hearts lie in their small, but agreeable, lives, and the journey they must go through to realize that money is not the key to happiness. A simple moral, to be sure, but one that fits comfortably within the confines of "Small Time Crooks," Allen's first motion picture of the 21st-century, and, no doubt, one of his brightest and sunny in years.
©2000 by Dustin Putman