by Greg Muskewitz
Woody Allen has been on vacation, at least from starring in his films for quite a while --and even longer if you count the last few he was in. So with the exception of his voice in Antz, Allen’s last good outing was in 1995 with Mira Sorvino and Michael Rapaport in Mighty Aphrodite. Small Time Crooks doesn’t quite bring back the real nostalgia of Allen films, but it does bring back and authenticized version of the nostalgia, and by doing so, brings back something five years absent.Allen is Ray Winkler, neurotic, old, and an ex-thief. He’s married to Frenchy, who’s played by Tracey Ullman, and for once, it’s nice to see Allen having his love interest played by someone not as far in age from him, and not the eye bulging, tongue hanging, jaw dropping beauty that he usually gets opposite him. Ullman is certainly not old, and neither is she unattractive, but when you compare the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings he customarily draws for his sixty and seventysomethings, the blandness, or at least unextravagentness works to her advantage.
"Allen is closer to being back than before."
They live in a hole-in-the-wall apartment somewhere in NYC. Ray is bored and poor, both he and Frenchy saving up any money possible from her work in a beauty salon. That is, until Ray gets a wild hair (on that balding head) to gather up a group of his co-horts and knock off a small bank. The bank wouldn’t be loaded, but nearing 2-million dollars, it would be enough to split four or five ways. It takes some convincing to get Frenchy to go along with it (“You’re always shooting down my dreams,” whines Allen. “Your’s are the kinda dreams people get from putting Opium in their brownies,” she says.) , but eventually she caves in.
Ray’s help consists of two pals of his, Denny (Michael Rapaport) and Tommy (Tony Darrow), the latter being a dummy, and the former being even more so. Their plan is to buy out a pizza shop that is only two buildings away from the bank, and by turning it into a cookie store for Frenchy to front for them, they can tunnel under to the bank. Of course, the mötley crew they are (add Jon Lovitz in for measure) they end up in the middle of a clothes store, caught. But the cookie store, Sunshine Cookies, has been way more successful than ever planned, and by cutting the cop in on some of the business (they make him a vice-president, just as everyone else in the crew), they get off scott free.
The movie skips ahead awhile, and Sunshine Cookies has turned into a huge chain, even bigger than Mrs. Fields, and it was all done honestly. All Ray wanted to do with the money (“It’s a cookie store. We’re makin’ dough!”) was move to Miami and bask in the sun (check out his white, chicken legs when he wears those shorts), but now, living in the high life was not his intention. However, Frenchy is eating it up, and hires David (Hugh Grant), a gallery manager, to give her and Ray lessons on being “cultured.” After a bit Ray opts out, but Frenchy delves into the richness of it all until forces that be put a stop to it. (There’s a great scene as Frenchy is hosting a party, and as Ray answers the doors, an older (white) man named Anthony Guinn introduces himself. Impressed and surprised, Ray sputters along, “Oh, no kidding, Tony Guinn, the outfielder for the Padres!”)
The deconstruction of Allen began with that of Harry in Deconstructing Harry, where he overdosed his script with neuroticism and vexation. Annoying characters coupled with a dumb story and misleading intentions did not go over well with critics nor audiences. And for the next two years after that (Woody is a once a year man), he didn’t bother to have himself as his protagonist. Instead he went with Kenneth Branaugh in Celebrity, a misfired black and white Hollywood comedy which almost seemed to be anti-Hollywood (aren’t most?), and then Sweet and Lowdown, which although he had brief cameos, Sean Penn was still not the Allen Protagonist. Anyway, Sweet and Lowdown, albeit more of a critics favorite, lacked in the writing department, and was in itself quite bland.
Woody Allen has sort of decentralized himself from the Woody Allen of his heyday, by taking the neurotic behavior, multiplying the petty annoyances, but diluting the comedy with gags or jokes that may appeal to a larger audience. Neither of his past few have been commercially there, but Small Time Crooks, distributed wider by DreamWorks has a better chance of making a bigger connection. Small Time Crooks isn’t back to the old Woody, the Woody of Take the Money and Run, or Bananas, Sleeper and Hannah and Her Sisters, but he has made strings to those, barely tracing them back, but showing the visibility of them.
As usual, Allen has assembled a good cast, and unlike those wasted in Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity, Allen makes very adept use of them. Veteran Elaine Stritch turns up for a nice tidbit, Hugh Grant is breezily alluring without being pretentious until the script calls for it, Elaine May is uproarious as May, Frenchy’s extremely dumb relative, and the aforementioned Darrow, Lovitz, and Rapaport were all pleasantly incessant in being lamebrains. It was nice to see Allen back in a more loquacious and homely fashion, and Ullman, one of the best female (and male too) character actresses out there, was gratifyingly a bonus to boot.Final Verdict: B.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4348&reviewer=172
originally posted: 05/27/00 00:34:55