30 May 2000 | EThompsonUMD
Like Mighty Aphrodite and Manhattan Murder Mystery, Small Time Crooks is the kind of movie Woody Allen would have made lots more of if he hadn't, in the post Annie Hall 1970s, started thinking of himself primarily as film auteur, rather than comedian. I count myself among those who are very glad he made the detour into Art that produced such original and challenging films as Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, and Deconstructing Harry. Small Time Crooks has a much lower level of ambition. Still, like most people in the audience at the showing I attended, I found much in it very amusing.
The film's comic plot starts out like Take the Money and Run revisited, but then takes a number of surprising turns. Along the way, Tracy Ullman, Elaine Stritch, and - especially - Elaine May all give scene-stealing performances. Early Woody one-liners and sight gags sparkle through the script (along with, unfortunately, a higher frequency of duds and chestnuts than in early Woody). Also adding an interesting dimension to the comedy is the influence of The Honeymooners on the relationship between Ray and Frenchie Winkler (Woody and Tracy) and on the film's fish-out-of-water class-based situation comedy. Woody has often professed his admiration for The Honeymooners, but this is the first film where he seems to have consciously reached for similar themes and effects.
On the down side, some of the plot twists seem downright arbitrary and amateurish, especially those involving Frenchie's comeuppance. Inadequate comic use is made of Ray's gang of losers (Jon Lovitz has one good line and too little screen time). And Hugh Grant as a Bluebeard wannabe is too much to ask of any audience. As to Woody himself .... what can you say? It's painful to watch his late career hardening of the comic arteries into stiff, unintentional self-parody. Let's hope the next Allen movie marks a return to high directorial ambition and low (as in "no") acting profile.