Small Time Crooks

Coming from a man who once boldly danced with Death, battled a giant lactating breast, and had sex to the strains of Howard Cosell's play by play, Small Time Crooks is petty larceny indeed. It's a half-baked affair that's a pastiche of better, more inventive comedies, including some of director Woody Allen's own early work. Allen doesn't even strike a consistent tone. He shifts gears during the movie's first third, turning a mildly amusing caper in the vein of Take the Money and Run and Big Deal on Madonna Street into a transparent riff on Pygmalion.

Not since Broadway Danny Rose has the Woodman's screen persona ventured from the Upper West Side. Here he's Ray Winkler, a downtown blue-collar schmuck scheming to get ahead by knocking over a local bank. The plan: Buy a deserted, nearby storefront cheap and tunnel under the street to the bank vault. Ray's wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), is plenty skeptical: Ray's already done time in jail, and his cronies aren't the sharpest tools in the shed. Tommy (Tony Darrow) sold a rented car; Denny (Michael Rapaport) thinks he's street smart but, as Frenchy says, "Yeah. He's got potholes for brains." And you know you're in trouble when the fourth compadre is played by Jon Lovitz.

It would be a recipe for certain disaster, except that Frenchy's got a scheme of her own: a cookie-baking business that thrives beyond her wildest dreams. Soon she's the next Mrs. Fields, and the Winklers are moving on up into Manhattan high society. The only problem is that Ray's crude jokes ("Did you hear the one about the Polish carpool? Every day, they meet at work!") and Frenchy's taste in decor (electric rugs, life-size porcelain dolls, Grecian busts) make them the laughing stock of the upper crust. Frenchy is so determined to fit in that she hires a suave but greedy art dealer (Hugh Grant) to teach her the difference between Harry James and Henry James, while Ray, staunchly anti-intellectual as ever, hits the betting track with Frenchy's dimwitted cousin, May (Elaine May).

This is a high-class affair all across the board, from the shimmering skylights and sunsets of cinematographer Zhao Fei (who also shot Allen's Sweet and Lowdown) to the eclectic supporting cast, which includes Isaac Mizrahi as an aghast chef and the venerable Elaine Stritch as a fluttery society matron. And yet it all goes to pot, thanks to Allen's sketchy scripting and direction. There's a creaky moral lesson (a big heart is more important than a bank account) and too much strained banter between Allen and Ullman, who struggles valiantly to dress up her caricature of a character. Even a seemingly sure-fire gag involving Allen's attempts to sneak up a flight of stairs at a fancy party falls flat.

Only Elaine May shines, in a weird and wonderful turn. Her loopy character has such a struck-by-lightning demeanor that she's always delightfully off in her own comic orbit even in the tritest of scenes. Whether nervously reciting weather reports as small talk or declining a canapé — "I never eat anything with a toothpick. They get lodged in your throat" — she's such a singular comic presence that she picks Small Time Crooks right out of Allen's pocket.

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