Small Time Crooks is the latest Woody Allen film; it offers an undemanding afternoon at the movies. It’s a cut above some of his recent films, thanks mainly to Tracey Ullman, who’s a fabulous sparring partner for Allen (she’s also older than some of his recent co-stars, which helps him seem younger).Allen and Ullman are husband and wife Ray and Frenchy Winkler, the “small time crooks” of the title. Ray’s ambition is to make enough money to move to Florida. He leases a pizza shop two doors down from a bank, and plans to drill a tunnel through to the vault. Ray and his buddies are about as dumb as the basement wall they’re drilling through (dumber really, since the wall constantly outsmarts them). They look doomed to poverty (or prison) until the cookies that Frenchy’s baking upstairs, and selling as a front, become a hit. New Yorkers queue for hours for the delectable cookies and unpretentious service dished out by Frenchy and her dimwitted cousin May (a delightfuly obtuse Elaine May). Suddenly Frenchy and Ray are self-made millionaires.
The joy of Small Time Crooks is the unfolding of this plot and the gags that come thick and fast, in the juicy ripostes between Ullman and Allen. The second half of the film is part-Pygmalion, with Hugh Grant educating the vulgar, hotpants-clad Frenchy (who's reverted to "Francis") in the ways of New York society. But Grant looks lost, and doesn’t spark with Ullman, so the film sags. It perks up with the arrival of the marvellous Elaine Stritch, as the owner of a diamond necklace that May and Allen are trying to steal.The production values are all fine, especially the crisp photography of Fei Zhao (who also shot Allen’s last film, Sweet and Lowdown). The costume and art departments have done a great job creating Frenchy’s tacky wardrobe and ghastly interior decoration - they must have had a ball.