| *** Stars
Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz
Directed by Woody Allen
Writing credits: Woody Allen
Dreamworks * 94minutes
Woody Allen has had a tough few years. Arguably, they couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, but love him or hate him, there's no denying that the man has a quirky, obnoxious, unique talent. Unfortunately, in the years since the effervescent and zany BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, the Allen oeuvre has been tainted by his newfound tendency to turn his self-loathing outward, instead of within himself where it belongs, and where it's entertained filmgoing audiences for years. Now, in SMALL TIME CROOKS, Allen finally realizes again that people see his films to laugh, not to share his personal angst, and if he's not quite back to his old form, he's close enough.
This time around, Allen is Ray Winkler, a schmeggege of an ex-con who floats from job to job as a dishwasher, all the while dreaming of his next Grand Scheme. This time, his master plan involves renting a vacant pizzeria and tunnelling underneath the two intermediary stores on the way to a bank vault, where and his two dimwit friends plan to strike it rich. His long-suffering wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), a sort of low-rent Carmela Soprano, plays Alice to Ray's Ralph Kramden, cooking his favorite linguini with turkey meatballs, baking cookies, standing by him despite his inability to make any of his schemes work.
Only this time, the scheme works in a way no one planned. Frenchy's cookie shop, which serves as a front to the underground tunnelling scheme, becomes the hottest eatery in town, and soon Ray and Frenchy are running Sunset Farms, the most unlikely, yet obscenely successful startup company in America, specializing in such equally unlikely cookie flavors as chicken chip and tuna mint.
Frenchy, for whom a rise from exotic dancer to manicurist is already a step up, exults in her new-found wealth, longing to become a "really high class" philanthropist, enlisting the health of a David, a young art dealer (Hugh Grant), to play Henry Higgins to her Eliza Dolittle. Inevitably, as befits the story's obvious sitcom roots rather than the tendencies of its auteur, all's well that ends well.
After the excruciating unpleasantness of DECONSTRUCTING HARRY and CELEBRITY, and the sour Allen surrogate Emmet Ray as expertly rendered by Sean Penn in last year's SWEET AND LOWDOWN, why Allen has decided to go back to his anarchically zany comic roots is anyone's guess. But if his comic wheels are a bit rusty, SMALL TIME CROOKS actually shows a warmth and a sweetness that we haven't seen in Allen's work before.
For perhaps the first time, the female characters in a Woody Allen film aren't completely reprehensible. If Tracey Ullman's Frenchy is vulgar and self-deluded, she's also devoted to her no-good husband, trying mightily to drag him along with her in her search for personal growth. It's not her fault that he'd rather eat take-out Chinese spareribs and drink Pepsi (in an uncharacteristically obvious product placement) with Frenchy's clueless cousin Mae than go to art museums, where the only difference he sees from one painting to another is that the frame is bigger in the second one. Ullman is a formidable presence in the vein of Bette Midler; a larger-than-life talent that no one has yet figured out how to fully exploit. Yet she conducts herself admirably here, overdoing it just enough to keep Frenchy funny without making her annoying.
A more understated, though no less funny, portrayal is Elaine May's loopy Mae Sloan, who is given to musings about her first husband Otto, the dyslexic who could spell only his name correctly. The living embodiment of Bill Griffiths' Zippy the Pinhead comic book character, Mae is a somewhat less attractive, but more kindly written version of the ditzy dames Mia Farrow used to play in these films. In a hilarious segment that is an obvious throwback to the slapstick in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, Ray attempts to swap a socialite's expensive necklace for a fake during a party, while Mae, instructed to stay out of trouble by talking only about the weather, makes remarks about how she hates food with toothpicks in it, because they get lodged in your throat.
Even Ray, the obligatory Woody Allen persona in the film, is somewhat less insufferable than usual. Ray is slightly tougher than most Allen characters, and enough less whiny that we can actually sympathize with his desire to get back to a simpler life, especially when surrounded by some of the most hilariously tasteless decor ever put on film. Also playing at least slightly against type is the usually equally insufferable Hugh Grant, who finally has the opportunity to portray a character with a cruel core, and has a rollicking good time doing it, batting his eyes and stuttering somewhat less than is his custom.
One of the most effective elements in the funnier Woody Allen films is the use of real commentators in interview segments about the characters. SMALL TIME CROOKS sports a terrifically plausible Steve Kroft 60 MINUTES segment on the zanily incompetent management of Sunset Farms Cookies, asking the question many people ask about real corporations: How can this group of people possibly be running a successful company?
If SMALL TIME CROOKS is a bit of a cookie cutter (sorry) pastiche of classic Woody Allen elements that is less than the sum of its parts; if it is somewhat unevenly paced, even if the ending falls a bit flat, I for one can forgive him. Because for once he's not trying to work out his emotional baggage on my nickel.
SMALL TIME CROOKS official site
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