movie review by
Gary Johnson


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Small Time Crooks

Fans of Woody Allen's early movies have been clamoring for years for him to return to the style of his early comedies (e.g., Take the Money and Run and Bananas). His newest movie, Small Time Crooks, should help satisfy those fans. It's an extremely light and inconsequential film, but it's also a funny and endearing movie.

After stepping behind the camera completely in many of his recent films, Woody Allen returns to a starring role. He plays a safe-cracker, Ray Winkler, who is married and following the straight and narrow. But he's tired of not having any money. He drifts from job to job. Currently, he's a dishwasher, while his wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), brings home most of the family's cash through her job as a beautician. They bicker constantly, but a strong core of love shines through nonetheless. "Oh, I'd like to flatten you just once!" says Ray--a line that recalls Ralph Kramden's complaints in Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners.

With a small family nest egg of $6,000 accumulated in the bank, Allen decides it's time to make that money earn more than simple interest. When he discovers a storefront two doors down from a bank is available for rent, the gears in his mind start whirring. His plot: place a bogus store in the retail space while in the basement Allen and his gang of "small time crooks" tunnel to the bank vault. Never mind no one in the gang has ever built a tunnel before. "How hard can it be?" says the none-too-bright Denny (Michael Rapaport). But literally, no sooner does their jackhammer touch the concrete wall than a torrent from a punctured water main blasts across the basement and leaves them standing chest high in water.

This is just the beginning of the movie. Soon afterwards, the story changes entirely, which is both good and bad. On the plus side: bank heist stories have been done to death. Do we really need another story about a gang of incompetent criminals bungling their way to expected riches? So the abandonment of the bank heist story allows Allen to provide some unexpected plot twists. On the minus side: the bank heist opening is extremely funny and nothing in the rest of the movie even comes close to generating the same volume of laughs.

However, because Small Time Crooks is such a light little movie, it's important that this plot twist comes as a surprise, so I'm going to eliminate any further discussion of the plot

It's fun to watch Woody Allen again take a central acting role in one of his movies. He doesn't play his standard New York intellectual/neurotic character. Instead, he plays a not-especially-bright criminal who wants to be thought of as a mastermind. During his four-year stint in prison, the inmates referred to him as "The Brain"--but not for the reason Ray thought: "That was sarcastic," says fellow ex-con Benny (Jon Lovitz). "It wasn't sarcastic," says Ray. "It was sarcastic," insists Benny.

It's difficult to fully accept Allen in this role. His every movement suggests the neuroses that accompany people who spend too much thinking about life in lieu of living it. Allen doesn't have much range as an actor and this role arguably pushes a little past that limit. But he obviously likes Ray and he wants us to like him also. He wants us to see past the blustery big talk. Ray isn't a threat to anyone except himself.

Meanwhile Michael Rapaport and Tony Darrow, as members of Ray's bank heist gang, have the dumb act down cold. Rapaport in particular is making a career out of playing dumb guys. Here, he has a priceless bit where he wears his mining helmet backwards--because it looks better that way. Never mind the fact that the helmet's light is now shining in the wrong direction! (A subtle comment on the habit of today's teenagers to wear their hats sideways and thus defeat the purpose of the bill.) In addition, Jon Lovitz gives a very funny performance as (what else?) a dim-witted, irritating guy (a pyromaniac by trade) who throws in with Ray's gang.

Tracy Ullman carries much of the weight for making this movie work and she carries a strong presence, much like Alice in The Honeymooners. A stellar supporting cast lends additional support, including Elaine May as Frenchy's dim-witted cousin and Hugh Grant as a gold-digging art dealer.

Thematically, Small Time Crooks revolves around an old bit of wisdom: "Be careful what you wish for. You may get it." There's nothing new or particularly profound about that, but Allen fills this movie with a delicate brand of poignancy--much like Allen's mentor, Jackie Gleason, achieved with his classic television series.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]