6 January 2001 | Buddy-51
pleasant but time-marking comedy
Though essentially a time-marking throwaway by writer/director Woody Allen, `Small Time Crooks' provides so many gems of performance that one can overlook the film's derivative plotting and overall lack of comic drive. In this film, Allen more or less abandons his customary obsession with big city neuroses and middle-aged angst in favor of a more straightforward, plot-driven comedy, paying homage in its patchwork and eclectic story to any number of earlier well-known theatrical and cinematic works.
For example, the first half hour of the movie plays like a stateside version of the 1950's Italian comedy `Big Deal on Madonna Street' as a team of bumbling, far-from-intelligent small time crooks, led by ex-con Ray Winkler (Allen), sets up a cookie store as a `front' so they can drill a tunnel into a bank a mere two or three shops down the road. Then the plot of the film suddenly shifts gears when that plan falls apart and the gang hits pay dirt with the surprising success of the cookies that Ray's uncultured but well meaning wife, the former topless dancer Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), is assiduously baking and selling. The highlight of the film comes in the form of a brilliantly satiric pseudo-60 Minutes report in which Steve Kroft himself chronicles the meteoric rise that this ragtag collection of accidental entrepreneurs takes from obscure small business owners to multi-million dollar corporate giants a report that pokes affectionate fun at the clichéd rags-to-riches theme so essential to our concept of the beloved American Dream.
With this plot switch, we leave Madonna Street and head into `Unsinkable Molly Brown/Pygmalion/Educating Rita' territory as the vulgar, uncouth Frenchy realizes that, even with all her suddenly acquired wealth, she cannot possibly gain true acceptance from the elite cultural snobs she so desperately wants to impress without a little assistance from her own personal Henry Higgins, who arrives in the form of an art dealer named David played by the suave Hugh Grant. Thus, as Frenchy branches out and begins to open herself up to new cultural experiences, the couple begins to drift apart as Ray comes to crave the return to the simpler life of spaghetti and meatball dinners he knows they have left far behind.
Had Allen been able to sustain the cleverness and bite that inform that `60 Minutes' segment throughout the length of the entire film, `Small Time Crooks' might have emerged as more than just the mere piece of entertaining puffery it ultimately is. Indeed, we find ourselves laughing only occasionally and often at jokes or sight gags that would barely register a chuckle in one of Allen's more sophisticated, more edgy and more character-driven works. Special note must, however, be made of some of the actors, prime among them Ullman and the always brilliant Elaine May who, as Frenchy's adenoidal, utterly befuddled and endearingly obtuse cousin, returns to her `A New Leaf' roots and provides some of the sweetest comic moments in the film. Unfortunately, Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow and Jon Lovitz, as members of Ray's gang, though they all three give outstanding performances, aren't given enough screen time to really let their talents for comic characterization take flight. Hugh Grant is essentially Hugh Grant which is to say that he fulfills the requirements of his part without having to stretch his thespian muscles too much.
The success or failure of a comedy is ultimately determined by how often it is able to elicit laughs from the person watching it. Given that criterion, `Small Time Crooks' rates no better than a mild recommendation (though there is one very funny scene involving safecracking near the end of the film). Yet, if for no other reason than to relish a number of its dazzling performances, `Small Time Crooks' certainly earns at least a casual once-over from any Allen devotee. Guess we have no choice but to mark time right along with him!