Small Time Crooks

'Small Time Crooks,' a Cookie Caper With Nuts

By Rita Kempley, Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, May 19, 2000

All the world's a stage, and Woody Allen doesn't intend to vanish into the wings. He'll probably strut the boards till he creaks louder than they do. And he's still getting the girl at a rode-hard 64 in the dizzily disorganized crime caper "Small Time Crooks."

Propelled by slapstick and one-liners ("Did you hear the one about the Polish carpool? Every day they meet at work"), "Crooks" is more mainstream than most of Allen's artsy recent movies. It's on the quaint side, probably because the humor not only harks back to earlier, broader Allen goofs like "Take the Money and Run" and "Bananas" but also draws on the domestic dynamics of Jackie Gleason's "The Honeymooners."

Allen and Tracey Ullman, as Ray and Frenchy Winkler, trade empty threats and cutting gibes with the same bluster and offhandedness as Ralph and Alice Kramden. "I'd like to flatten you once," says wee, reedy Ralph, raising his balled fist to Alice. Of course, she could squash him like a ripe tomato and gives as good as she gets:

"What if I told you you're married to a very brilliant man?" Ray asks his wife.

"I'd say I'd have to be a bigamist," counters Frenchy, who started the interchange when she belittled Ray's plans to rob a bank with three dopey accomplices, amusingly played by Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow and Jon Lovitz.

Initially Frenchy refuses to go along with the scheme, but the story must go on, so she agrees to open a cookie store near the bank to cover their bumbling attempt to tunnel into the bank's safe. As seems inevitable from the start, it's her cookies, not his caper, that put the couple and their colleagues in league with Bill Gates.

At this point, we say farewell to the gang that couldn't tunnel straight to explore the travails of the nouveau riche, which range from garish decorating schemes to the pressure Frenchy's grand ambitions put on the Winklers' marriage. Ray's dream is more modest: to drink cold beer and eat stone crabs in Florida.

Allen is likable, but he isn't about to convince anybody that he's an ex-con, even though he isn't whining quite as much as usual. Ullman is a veritable chameleon, and the tarty Frenchy's lime-green stretch pants fit her like a coating of wax on a cucumber.

Hugh Grant brings the perfect mixture of smarm and charm to the role of a scheming art dealer. Elaine May, as Frenchy's lovably addlepated cousin, doesn't just steal every scene she's in; she all but walks off with the film.

Allen's screenplay isn't as fresh and edgy as it could be, and some of the situations never live up to their comic potential. Still, even though the payoff isn't that big, "Small Time Crooks" is diverting and provides a satisfying alternative to teen-oriented summer comedy.

SMALL TIME CROOKS (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for language.

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