Small Time Crooks (2000)

D: Woody Allen
S: Woody Allen, Tracy Ullman

Fitfully amusing Woody Allen film essentially composed of a series of longish sketches which don't knit together all that well. The initial premise has aging ex-con Allen contemplating an elaborate robbery with the help of his old gang and the cover of his wife (Tracy Ullman). She's set up to run a cookie store while they tunnel underneath to a nearby bank. Though the bank job fails, the cookie shop proves a big success. Cue Act II where the nouveau riche couple try to integrate with high society, leading to a series of potshots at the milieu familiar from Allen films from Alice to Everyone Says I Love You. Things take a turn for the worse when Woody realises that he was happier as a crook and Ullman begins to ingratiate herself with art dealer Hugh Grant. This leads to a Third Act drama where their relationship disintegrates and he tries to pull a job with her dotty cousin (Elaine May). It finally wraps with some pat observations about being true to oneself and having a little faith in people which just brings back memories of much better movies from this writer/director.

It is impossible to watch a Woody Allen film and not find something to laugh at. He has too long been a master of punchlines, satire, and bittersweet observation not to hit the mark at least some of the time. Small Time Crooks has some nice moments, the usual quota of good performances from a well-selected cast (Elaine Strich is great as a society dame, and writer May is good as the cousin), and there is an underlying thematic coherence which marks it out as the work of its maker. As a performer, Woody has a long-established physical and vocal presence which fans will enjoy seeing again. He and Ullman play well against one another, although their on-screen relationship involves a little too much loud complaining to make it seem particularly tender when it matters. Hugh Grant is effective as the real villain of the piece. Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, and Jon Lovitz make an amusing trio of inept hoods (and latterly business executives) for as long as they're around (they disappear mid-way through). The air of ensemble performance characteristic of Allen's work is there, and the basic blocking and camera work is more or less as expected.

It doesn't flow very well though. The stop-start nature of the plot means that it has no chance of building momentum, and the central characters are actually more abrasive than they need to be to generate sympathy. There is also an almost overpowering air of familiarity about much of it, including the aforementioned potshots taken at New York's upper crust. This serves the film all the more poorly precisely because we've seen it done before in various ways throughout this director's career, and despite the surface connections with, for example, Take the Money and Run (the crime element) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (rekindling excitement in a mature relationship), there is no great energy to it this time. Despite being a relatively pleasant time filler for those predisposed to the charms, Small Time Crooks is finally only a minor work from what is beginning to look like an increasingly tired cineaste. Deconstructing Harry and Everyone Says I Love You may have had problems of their own, but they at least had the merit of novelty. This film is at once too familiar and not slick enough by the usual standards to have any impact on its own terms. The film will really only appeal to devotees, and is unlikely to earn new ones.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.