Small Time Crooks

Full of Possibilities

Robert Horton

Small Time Crooks is another Woody Allen movie that feels like a first draft, in need of toning, pruning, and a little old-fashioned discipline. As an outline, the picture is full of possibilities, especially as Allen is leaving aside higher ambitions for the sake of pure comedy. In the first half of the movie, we meet Ray and Frenchy Winkler (Allen and Tracey Ullman), a blue-collar couple with 25 years of marriage behind them. For a couple of those years, Ray was in the slammer, the result of a botched robbery.

Because of this, Frenchy is dubious when Ray concocts a plan to rob a bank. The disasters of this enterprise put the movie in the tradition of the Ealing comedies, such as The Lavender Hill Mob. A quirk of fate turns the second half of the film toward the territory of Born Yesterday, as Ray and Frenchy hit it rich and enter the world of high society. The two halves are joined by a faux news story (reported by Steve Kroft) explaining how the Winklers got their fortune -- this sequence, which scores some decent laughs, is a throwback to the great Howard Cosell bit from Allen's Bananas.

The movie is certainly a triumph for longtime Allen designer Santo Loquasto, who nails two different worlds: the humble Winkler apartment, and the couple's subsequent adventures in bad taste on the Upper East Side. Tracey Ullman also comes out of the film nicely, with Frenchy Winkler a card-carrying member of her coterie of American grotesques. Yet even this gifted comic actress seems a bit hesitant, as though deferring to her director/co-star and never quite getting up a head of steam.

The one performer to unequivocally score is legendary comic/director/writer Elaine May, as Frenchy's spacey cousin. May's focus is so complete, her ditziness so quiet and controlled, that she creates a tiny little gem every time she's on screen. Allen seems to respond to this in a way he doesn't with the other supporting actors, who shuffle in and out of the film almost at random. His partners in crime are Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, and Tony Darrow, but instead of developing their characters Allen drops them halfway through the movie. Hugh Grant, as the cold-hearted snob tutoring Frenchy in the ways of ballet and experimental theater, is barely a presence. Surely, given Allen's fondness for actors improvising around his script, someone as sharp as Hugh Grant could create a caricature to remember. But it doesn't happen.

But the loose improv style, which results in overlapping dialogue and more than a few dead spots, still doesn't work consistently for Allen. It's a naturalistic mode, but since when did comedy succeed because of naturalism? On the contrary, a lot of comedy works because it feels satisfyingly "written," with a tang in its language. Think Moliere, think Preston Sturges. Or think Woody Allen in the early, funny films.