Small Time Crooks

'Small Time' Woody

By Desson Howe, Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, May 18, 2000

Maybe Woody Allen should be listed with Manhattan's unemployment offices as a dependable, make-work employer – someone who will always come up with a project to keep those shifty motion picture professionals off the streets.

Allen's McJob-of-a-movie this year is "Small Time Crooks," a film that's just funny enough to qualify as comedy, but written with such hack's lightness, you have to wonder if his heart was really in it.

The movie arrives plumb in the middle of the summer – earlier than Allen's usual fall opening. This timing – along with Allen's decision to sign up with Steven Spielberg's commercially conscious DreamWorks studio – may explain why some of the humor seems written dumber. Apparently, Woody's trying to let loose in the Carrey season.

Allen plays Ray Winkler, an ex-con dishwasher who's married to manicurist Frenchy (Tracey Ullman).

Their marriage seems to have been lifted directly from "The Honeymooners." Like the rotund schemer Ralph Kramden, Ray's always hatching dumb schemes to get them out of poverty. And like Alice Kramden, Frenchy's always putting them down.

Like Ralph (who always threatened to sock Alice all the way to the moon), Ray's always threatening to smack her. ("I'm going to slam your head off," he says at one point.) And although Frenchy can't make fun of her husband's tubbiness – the way Alice did – she ridicules his stupidity.

It's a lame routine, this marital relationship, and it feels borrowed. Both performers seem to be reciting lines, rather than living a cold water-flat marriage.

Ray's scheme of the moment: to rob a bank in New York by digging a tunnel to the vault. He plans to do this by setting up a cookie shop a few doors down, then shoveling dirt with help from partners-in-crime Denny (Michael Rapaport), Tommy (Tony Darrow) and, later, Benny (Jon Lovitz).

But while Ray and his misfit pals burst water mains and proceed unintentionally in underground circles, Frenchy sells those cookies like, well, hot cakes. Suddenly, the cookie front is doing so well, it's a toss-up whether to rob the bank or go legit.

They go legit. Ray and Frenchy hit the big time. Their Sunset Cookies become a phenomenon. They buy a house with a butler, and they fill it with tacky possessions. The high and mighty come to their parties. They're featured on "Sixty Minutes."

To Ray's horror, Frenchy decides she wants to ascend to higher social circles. So she hires an art dealer named David (Hugh Grant) to teach her art, sophistication and culture. The movie goes from "Honeymooners' to "Born Yesterday."

From here on, we wade through a Careful What You Pray For story line, hoping for the occasional good joke or moment of funniness. Even in lesser works like this one, Allen's always good for this stuff.

The aforementioned water main businessa short, but visually effective scene – will bring the house down. And though it may not over flow with one-linersmay not flow over, they're always on tap somewhere. When Ray boasts to Benny that, in prison, he was known as "The Brain," Benny goes into hysterics.

"It was sarcastic," he explains to Ray.

"I tried to go legit," Ray laments to his wife at one point. "I couldn't make a go at the pet cemetery."

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't end so much as trickle out. We're left with a mild smirk on our faces, at best.

Right now, I can assure you, Woody Allen is already planning the next "untitled" project which will, once again, begin with white titles on black, feature a song or three from his stash of jazz or Dixieland favorites, and start up the Woody Allen employment machine again. One day, the great job benefactor will have to ask himself: Does he make movies simply to keep himself and others working? Or because, get this, he just thought of a movie that's really great enough to be made?

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