Small Time Crooks

large_small_time_crooks_blu-ray_05Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks is undoubtedly his biggest financial success in years — $11 million as of its third weekend — and having seen it, I can understand why: It’s very amiable and very broad. Gone is the venom of Deconstructing Harry, the insider satire of Celebrity, the fancy structure of Mighty Aphrodite and Sweet and Lowdown — all recent Woody flops. Somewhere in the middle of Small Time Crooks, a cookie mogul explains the success of a rival cookie tycoon: all you have to do is make a product the public wants. Small Time Crooks is a pretty good cookie.

Woody downscales his IQ to play Ray Winkler, a former (and inept) criminal turned dishwasher. Ray has a scheme to rob a bank: he’ll purchase an abandoned storefront nearby, and dig a tunnel up into the bank. Ray’s wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) can’t believe what she’s hearing, but eventually she goes along with it, running a cookie business out front while Ray and his cronies (the hilarious trio of Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, and Tony Darrow) drill away in the basement.

From this slapsticky farce, complete with gushing water mains and wrong tunnel turns, Small Time Crooks takes an abrupt, hard left into social criticism. I’d so enjoyed the acting teamwork of the four bumbling thieves, capably abetted by Ullman’s derisive Frenchy and Elaine May as her spacey cousin May, that the second half of the film came as a slight letdown. The jokes keep coming, but this time they’re at the expense of the rich snobs Ray and Frenchy find themselves among when their cookie business unexpectedly turns into a gold mine.

Frenchy wants to become part of high society, and gets lessons in art and culture from a slick art dealer (Hugh Grant, returning to the aristocratic-bastard roles he used to play before he became a dithering marquee name). Ray can’t stand the pretense and glitz of the upscale New York life — he yearns to move to Miami, fill up on cheeseburgers and beer, and hit the racetrack every day. Perhaps part of the secret of the movie’s success is that it tells the rest of the country that the high life in the Big Apple — always held up for envy — isn’t worth aspiring to.

We’ve seen much of this before; it feels like a half-remembered episode of The Honeymooners where Ralph and Alice strike it rich and find that money can’t buy happiness. (I’m not sure if there ever was such an episode, but other sitcoms have done it; in any event, Woody explicitly makes this movie an homage to Jackie Gleason and company.) The movie focuses on how money changes (or doesn’t change) Ray and Frenchy, but I wanted to see more of Ray’s cronies, who get absorbed into the cookie company as executive officers. And come to think of it, doesn’t Frenchy have any friends? We never see any besides her cousin May.

We’re glad the cousin is around, though, because Elaine May — a screenwriter these last few decades, who has done very little performing since her stage days with Mike Nichols — swipes the movie right out from under Allen and Ullman. (Call her a big-time crook.) Whether she’s giving a weather report to baffled stuffed shirts at a dinner party or blurting out secrets to a camera crew, Cousin May is completely herself, despite her large share in the cookie profits. She’s the same person; she just has a nicer apartment now. Unlike Frenchy, May has no aspirations to loftier things; unlike Ray, she’s comfortable with her wealth. So she emerges as the movie’s slightly daffy hero, and Elaine May gives a quietly heroic comic performance to match. She’s the mint in this particular cookie.

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