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Small Time Crooks

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Small Time Crooks

Starring: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman
Director: Woody Allen
Rated: PG
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: May 2000
Genre: Comedy

*Also starring: Tony Darrow, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Elaine May, Michael Rapaport, Elaine Stritch, George Grizzard

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Does money change people? If we go by Woody Allen's latest movie "Small Time Crooks," the answer is a resounding NO and a thunderous YES. In other words, some people stay pretty much the same when they come into the big ones, while others turn their lives around 180 degrees. When a working-class couple married for twenty-five years suddenly get rich, the woman of the house transforms herself while her man is happy to be who he always was. This dissonance in their relationship is the basis for not only the generous laughs in "Small Time Crooks" but forms a more serious motif as it creates at the same time a poignant rift in their relationship.

As for Woody Allen himself, the more he's changed as a filmmaker the more he stays the same. After developing a rep for light comedy with "What's New Pussycat" in 1965 and parlaying his success with take-offs on such diverse themes as crime movies ("Take the Money and Run" in 1969) and on Russian literature ("Love and Death" in 1975), Mr. Allen reached his apogee winning three Oscars for "Annie Hall." With "Interiors," he turned briefly serious, to a Bergmanesque study of a family of frustrated men and women. After that, he pretty much went with what he did best--light comedies of manners, gently spoofing aspects of our family lives. This is just what Mr. Allen has afforded us with "Small Time Crooks," a lampoon which begins as a lowbrow caper piece only to zigzag like "Zelig"--which was about a chameleon-like character in his 1983 contribution to the comedy genre.

"Small Time Crooks," filmed with an amber tint by Zhao Fei and with Allen's signature soundtrack of 1920s melodies, opens as Ray Winkler (Woody Allen) buys a box of chocolates for his wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman). Ray, an ex- con who is now a dishwasher, discusses with Frenchy (formerly an exotic dancer and now a manicurist) his plan to make it big so that they could flee New York and retire to Miami. Frenchy opens a small cookie store as a front to an operation that sees Ray tunneling in the basement with his partners in crime in their scheme to rob the next-door bank. When the strategy fails after a series of exuberant mishaps, Frenchy's cookie store takes off, developing into a huge, corporate franchise operation that nets millions for the Winklers.

While Ray is content to be Ray, Frenchy soon puts on airs in her aspiration to be accepted as high society. Her vulgar taste in home decor, however, prompts her to link up with handsome, young art collector David (Hugh Grant), who is to make her a class act by teaching her about fine food, wine, art, literature, music, and travel. Ray, on the other hand, would rather have a cheeseburger than escargot and playing cards with the boys is more his cup of tea than, well, sipping tea with the elite. As they grow apart, Ray spends most of his time in the company of fellow lowbrow May (Elaine May), whose emptiness upstairs leads the audience to enjoy quite a few more belly-laughs.

"Small Time Crooks" proves that you can go home again. While Woody Allen is laying on the theme, "Don't wish too hard for what you want, because you may get it," he does so with the genial flair he employed to direct movies that made him so amiable during the sixties and early seventies, before he turned to the more sober political agenda of "The Front" and the obscure, depressing "Shadows and Fog." If Allen had attempted to continue with the caper theme, this film could have been overlong at 95 minutes. But he wisely and surprisingly dovetails that facet of the story into something greater, opening up the yarn to give us a look at the phoniness, the pretensions, and the cynicism of the tuxedo- clad members of New York society. Correct me if I'm wrong, but years after making a film about a middle-aged guy who is dating "a girl who does homework," isn't this the first time Allen has paired himself off romantically with a woman who is older than he is (Elaine May)?

Everything gels in "Small Time Crooks," thanks largely to the chemistry between Woody Allen and the remarkable Tracey Ullman, who had delighted her fans for years as the boisterous, fun-loving and forever-changing character on her own TV show and is now made up to look a decade older than her forty years. For his part, Allen may not be quite as good-looking as some others in his age group (Warren Beatty and Robert Redford for example), but he's as youthful as ever and gives hope to all of us that we may look shlubby in our late-middle years but can keep the spring in our step and the gleam in our eyes. Because of the adept, multi-layered story-telling present in "Small Time Crooks," we can better understand at least one guy who won big bucks about ten years ago in the New York lottery and said that his biggest ambition was to go to Hawaii. Why not Europe? Why not around the world? This guy--his name is Lou, I believe--knew long before seeing this movie that he would be one unhappy rich man indeed if he followed the advice of the well-heeled and famous.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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