"Small Time Crooks"

The latest from Woody Allen is an enjoyable trifle -- but Tracey Ullman and Elaine May walk off with the picture.

Published May 19, 2000 3:30PM (EDT)

Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks" is an unexpected picture from a filmmaker who has spent much of his career (and squandered much of his talent) trying to appear cultured and tasteful: a trifling but enjoyable comedy about a vulgarian who rejects the trappings of culture because he's happy to be a slob.

Allen plays Ray Winkler, a middle-aged dishwasher who dreams of hitting it rich. He's not averse to doing it through crime, but his one previous attempt landed him in the pokey. Ray thinks he's got a foolproof plan when he spots a vacant pizzeria a few doors down from a bank. He and some buddies plan to use the shop as a front while they tunnel below and into the bank's vaults. The scheme is, of course, a disaster. What isn't is the cookie business that Ray's wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), has set up as a cover for the illegal excavation taking place in the basement.

Bank heist comedies have a tendency to get very tedious very fast, so it's both a relief and a nice twist when Ray and Frenchy land in the chips because of their cookie business. Soon the pair of them are heading up a national chain of cookie shops and they've left their cramped little dive behind for wildly overdecorated Upper East Side digs. Ray is happy to live the same way he always has, eating Frenchy's turkey meatballs and watching TV in his underwear, even if it is a better class of TV and underwear. He's happy to live the high life, but unimpressed by it. When he's interviewed by Steve Kroft for "60 Minutes," he shows off a French antique, saying he wasn't sure under whose reign it was made but assuring him that it was "one of the top Louis."

But for Frenchy, wealth is a means of fulfilling her dreams of being cultured. When she realizes the swells she wants to hobnob with are making fun of her, she decides to get some culture fast by hiring a British art dealer (Hugh Grant) to be her Henry Higgins. When it becomes clear that Ray has no interest in buying what this guy has to sell, the dealer sees his chance to replace Ray in both Frenchy's affections and her checkbook.

For a picture that turns out to be fun, "Small Time Crooks" doesn't start out very well. Allen likes to shoot in real locations, and he hasn't given Ray and Frenchy's meager beginnings the same stylization that production designer Santo Loquasto brings to their swanky new place. In the first few scenes I felt trapped in the dingy apartment and the dingy cookie shop. The squalor killed the laughs.

"Small Time Crooks" doesn't have the farcical polish of Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway"; it isn't as satisfyingly sustained or worked out. And it doesn't have the surprising warmth or emotion of the deceptively modest "Manhattan Murder Mystery," the casual masterpiece that may be Allen's best movie since "Annie Hall." The pacing is uneven and, on some basic level, the movie lacks zing. Allen can't quite get inside the rude energy of Ray and Frenchy, so, at times, the movie feels like a careful approximation of a farce instead of the real thing. And I wish the script hadn't been shaped to wind up teaching Frenchy a lesson.

But Allen often does good work when he treats his movies as if they were no big deal, and though it sacrifices farcical precision, the looseness of "Small Time Crooks" is appealing. Allen has spent much of the past 20 years trying to be Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini or John Cassavetes, but he has also never been able to rid himself of the guy who enjoys Bob Hope movies and letting the air out of stuffed shirts. Watching Ray try to tell jokes to some humorless rich guests at one of Frenchy's dinner parties can remind you of why you liked Allen in the first place (even if those guests aren't the comic prigs they might be).

Costume designer Suzanne McCabe has outfitted Allen in a series of garishly loud three-button sports coats, tuxedos with a knocked-off gold Versace pattern adorning the lapels like medals and black loafers with big gold doodads across them, and they look a lot better on him than all those damn tasteful Ralph Lauren tweeds and chinos.

The clothes are a poor slob's fantasy of how a rich man dresses, the mark of somebody who thinks money's only good for having fun. They do wonders for Allen; the garishness becomes him. Strolling down the street or happily stuffing himself with an egg roll, he looks more relaxed than he has on-screen for years. You're conscious that the performance is a rich man's fantasy of how a poor man who becomes rich might behave, and it doesn't entirely escape a trace of condescension. But Allen shows more sympathy for Ray and Frenchy than he does for the snoots they're surrounded by. It makes all the sense in the world that Allen would be envious of a man who has no trouble taking pleasure in life.

Allen still neglects some of his supporting players. As two of the gang involved in Ray's robbery scheme, Michael Rapaport and Jon Lovitz (one of our most sadly underused comic actors) are out of the movie before we've gotten our fill of them. And Isaac Mizrahi, who exudes the craziness of '30s screwball comedy, deserves more than his one brief scene as a chef. But Allen does more than right by three of his players.

As Frenchy, Ullman is one of the few costars Allen has given himself who's allowed to stand up to him. In the stray moments when his performance lapses into a Ralph Kramden imitation, a look from Ullman is all that's needed to remind him who's boss. And yet Ullman doesn't slight the sweetness that characterizes her work. She's one of those performers who seem to have an instinctive audience rapport. You know immediately why Ray is crazy about her, and you ache for her when she overhears her taste being denigrated. Frenchy is naive -- and yet it's hard to think of her that way because denying the expectation that lights up Ullman's face just seems churlish. It's a little delight of a performance.

Grant has been pushing his nice-guy charm for so long that his role as David -- a heel whose nice-guy charm is all an act -- liberates him. Grant takes to playing a bastard. This is the first time he's really seemed an actor since "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (before his appeal became shtick) and Roman Polanski's "Bitter Moon." He lets something self-satisfied and prissy and slightly acrid worm its way into his persona. The slyness becomes him. If he could find a way to work a bit of this nasty-mindedness into his romantic leading roles, he might give himself an edge that could make him more appealing than ever.

But it's Elaine May as Frenchy's cousin, a chatterbox simpleton, who walks off with "Small Time Crooks" in what is the funniest performance you're likely to see this year or the next. She's simply flabbergasting. Groucho Marx once said that Margaret Dumont was so good because she didn't get the jokes. May, whom Bill Murray once described as having "a major coconut on her shoulders," acts as if she doesn't get the jokes. She seems to be beaming in from some universe of her own devising, so far inside her character's addlebrained confusion that everything she says (often in a slightly slurred accent that suggests George Jessel) is funny.

Watching May's performance, I found myself stifling my laughter for fear of missing what she was going to come out with next. She's a pixilated kook who has been slugged by life in New York, like a drooping Jewish Gracie Allen. May has the look of a complete naif who wouldn't be surprised by anything because she's seen it all before. There's nothing small time about May's scene stealing here. The laughs she filches are as big as the Hope Diamond.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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