(Woody Allen, continued. This film review of “Small Time Crooks” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 9 February 2001.)
Written & directed by Woody Allen
Starring Woody Allen, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Elaine May, Michael Rapaport, Elaine Stritch and Tracey Ullman
Even on a mediocre day, a Woody Allen outing is better than most films which show up in cinemas these days. By any account, Allen’s latest – “Small Time Crooks” (which unaccountably took more than six months to arrive in Australia) – is a minor film of the Allen repertoire, but will be essential viewing for his long-time fans.
“Small Time Crooks” (2000) was also Allen’s first film since “Deconstructing Harry” (1997) in which Woody Allen also stars. This time he plays Ray Winkler, a New York working class, Jewish, small time schlemiel-like thief whose IQ appears to have a hard time breaking into the 90s. Not long out of prison, Ray works as a dishwasher and is married to Francis (“Frenchie”), a nail manicurist played by Tracey Ullman. It’s a small life, but Ray dreams big dreams, this time about robbing a nearby bank by tunnelling into the bank’s vault from the basement of a dis-used pizza restaurant nearby. They need a cover, so open a cookie shop with Frenchie baking her speciality cookies.
After joining up with a crooked cop, the cookie business unaccountably becomes wildly successful, and all of wealth they once desired is theirs. But this is a story with a moral, and Ray and Frenchie are not really happy with the riches and the good life. While Ray just wants to retire to Florida, Frenchie wants to attain a new social standing befitting the money, so throws dinner parties for people who despise her and hires an art dealer (Hugh Grant) to teach her the finer points of life.
Along the way, we are treated to lots of Woody Allen satire and commentary: of the nouveau riche, the emotional bankruptcy of wealth, the value of real friendship, the pretensions of the artistic elite, and the unpredictability of American faddish culture. It’s all good fun, but it does not amount to a very profound journey for its characters; it’s syrupy and slight (with a “G” rating even). The real enjoyment of “Small Time Crooks” comes in the characters and the acting – as good as, if not better than many of Allen’s more meaningful films. Ray’s band of crooks (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, Jon Lovitz) are wonderfully inept, Hugh Grant plays himself with ease, and Allen’s ageing dumb crook character reminds us that he does indeed have an acting range. But the film’s most captivating moments come from Tracey Ullman and Elaine May (who plays Frenchie’s dimwitted cousin May). Ullman is one of the very best comic actors around, and here has a role with depth in which to shine (and may get her an Oscar). Elaine May is best-known for her work as a screenwriter (“Primary Colors”) and director, but here creates one of the most interesting characters seen in a Woody Allen film in a long time: so dumb she is almost smart.
Elaine May footnote: Exactly a year ago (20 October 2011), a set of three one-act plays called “Relatively Speaking” opened in New York City’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre (I saw it not long after opening). The three plays were written by Woody Allen, Elaine May and Ethan Coen. In this New York Times piece from 13 October 2011, Elaine May interviews Woody Allen and Ethan Coen. Funny stuff!