Small Time Crooks

"I wish I was still a crook. Then I'd feel like an actual person again."

- Ray Winkler (Woody Allen)

By Mark Zimmer

After years of making dramas and comedy-dramas, Woody Allen finally returned to the big-screen with a flatout comedy in 2000, Small Time Crooks. His neurotic nebbish persona hasn't aged too gracefully, though; what was funny when he was younger now just seems pathetic. Much of the humor here comes from the excellent supporting cast.

Allen stars as Ray Winkler, a former numbers runner and failed bank robber (an older version of the character in Take the Money and Run, perhaps?) who has concocted a scheme to tunnel from a defunct pizza parlor into a nearby bank vault. Aided by his cronies, arsonist Benny (Jon Lovitz), and dimwits Denny (Michael Rapaport) and Tommy (Tony Darrow), Ray ineptly proceeds with the tunnel idea, using his wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) as a front up above. Unexpectedly, her cookie shop becomes a huge hit, putting the Winklers in the big time. As Frenchy tries to adjust and gain some class by taking lessons from art hustler David (Hugh Grant), Ray becomes more and more disenchanted with money, leading to a comic conclusion.

While there are some clever and humorous bits scattered throughout the film, it's not really a return to Allen's old form. The lead characters are uniformly stupid and inept, best exemplified by Frenchy's idiot cousin, May Sloan (a splendid Elaine May, of Nichols & May). May not only makes the rest of the cast look like geniuses, but she's got a charm of her own, in her own dimwitted way. Lovitz plays something other than his usual slimy character here, although he's almost nondescript. Rapaport and Darrow are good as the bumbling sidekicks; the scene where they break a water main while drilling and try to plug it with Darrow's arm is quite funny indeed. Ullman is as always spot on in her accent, this time taking on the New Jersey housewife to a would-be hoodlum. Grant humourously takes on a parody of his usual nice romantic lead and is an out-and-out rotter this time.

The ensemble works quite nicely together; it's unfortunate that the script doesn't really give them more to do. It seems as if Allen is trying to put the film into a classical three-act mold, with the rise, the top and the inevitable collapse each sharing equal time; frankly the funniest bit is the nouveau riche uncouthness of the Winklers, and the crook angle is nearly forgotten for much of the film. The humor is quiet and droll most of the time, without generating much in the way of big laughs. The few attempts at slapstick are so lame they need a crutch. Allen should stick to the verbal humor, since it's what he's best at.

That said, this is a pleasant enough comedy which is really pretty inoffensive; it hardly merits the PG rating that the MPAA placed upon it. We aren't pummeled with sex and fart jokes throughout, as seems to be the case so much these days. You could do a lot worse in looking for a modern comedy for the family than this one.

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