Small Time Crooks

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SMALL TIME CROOKS

6/10/10

US 2000
dir, scr Woody Allen
cin Zhao Fei
stars Tracey Ullman, Woody Allen, Hugh Grant
94 minutes

Small Time Crooks: small time movie. Woody Allen’s insistence on churning out a new picture every single year means he doesn’t have time to plan or execute them properly, let alone use them as stepping stones to producing better work. While his last releases: Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, Sweet and Lowdown, and now this one, aren’t exactly bad movies, they’re equally a long way from the great, mature works we’re entitled to expect from the maker of Annie Hall and Stardust Memories. He remains capable of terrific writing and innovative direction, but ends up losing his way in a mad dash to add yet another title to his filmography. For his long-suffering fans, it’s frustrating and more than a little tragic to have to put up with third-rate comedies like Small Time Crooks – he should standd back and take a breather, for everybody’s sakes.

Then again, Crooks has turned out to be his biggest hit since Bullets Over Broadway – perhaps not surprising given the relatively broad, sitcom-ish type of comedy on show. And the first half hour is marvellous. Small time crook Ray (Allen) dreams of one big heist that will enable him and his wife Frenchy (Ullman) to escape their humdrum lives. He plans to rob a bank robbery by tunnelling underground from the cellar of vacant premises next door, brings in accomplices Jon Lovitz and Michael Rapaport, while Frenchy starts baking and selling cookies upstairs. The drilling operation is a disaster – recalling indie sleeper Palookaville – but the cookie business becomes a roaring success. So far, so good.

But from this point on Allen comes a cropper, as Small Time Crooks shifts gear from giddily effective farce into lazy social satire, frittering away all the good work of the first section – it’s baffling how little the movie utilises the fine comic skills of Lovitz, for example. Instead, we see how Ray and Frenchy’s cookie business brings them millions of dollars, but only humilation when they attempt to gatecrash snooty Manhattan high society. Frenchy turns to a bumbling British art expert David (Grant), for ‘lessons in life,’ while the neglected Ray seeks solace with Frenchy’s cousin May (Elaine May), a dimwitted but kindhearted soulmate.

Allen fatally fumbles the two plot strands: not even the impressive Ullman can save the tiresome shenanigans between Frenchy and David, which take up far too much screen time, milking easy laughs from stale highbrow/lowbrow gags. There’s more potential in the Allen-May story, which touchingly recalls the similarly ‘forbidden’ relationship between Allen and Diane Keaton in Play It Again, Sam. But this angle is fatally underdeveloped as Allen conjures up another ‘last’ heist for Ray, with the endearing May again relegated to the background. This torpedoes what’s presumably supposed to be an ‘upbeat’ finale – May finds an acceptable alternative suitor, and the fundamentally mismatched Ray and Frenchy get back together. A nonsensical resolution – as Allen might have realised if he’d spent more than five minutes thinking the whole thing up.