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Thieves Like Us 

Populist morality in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks

Wednesday, May 17 2000
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Any new Woody Allen film, even a minor one, is cause for a round of cultural pulse-taking, not to mention scrutiny of the man who has come to embody the best -- and the most disappointing -- in American moviemaking. Small Time Crooks is definitely minor Allen that, nevertheless, offers a welcome riposte to the current national obsession with getting rich. This comedy, the first of three projected offspring from the writer-director’s new union with DreamWorks, might well be subtitled Woody Allen for Dummies, since it is so transparent as to be accessible to nearly anyone. Gone are the moody Bergmanisms of his middle period, as well as his sepia-toned nostalgia for a vanished jazz age, even though the film is carried by the jaunty strains of ”Stompin‘ at the Savoy.“ The setting remains New York City, but there is no suggestion of Allen’s love affair with upscale Manhattan, and his hero‘s patented paranoia has yielded to an indestructible optimism.

Allen has also endowed his principals with only a smidgen of the brains they’d normally walk about with. His own character, Ray Winkler, is a schlep who reflexively and childishly bickers with his gum-chewing wife, Frenchy, played by a blue-nailed, malaproping Tracey Ullman. Ray‘s endless threats to bash his spouse might sound like a PSA for a battered-wives shelter were they not so obviously inspired by The Honeymooners, whose broad comic sensibility animates Small Time Crooks.

The story begins with Ray, a dishwasher and ex-con, trying to convince Frenchy to loan him all the money she’s earned as a manicurist so that he can join a group of robbers planning a bank heist. The idea is for these men (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow and Jon Lovitz) to lease a storefront and tunnel their way from its basement into the bank. Ray‘s crew, however, bears an ominous resemblance to the Three Stooges. ”I don’t do fractions,“ Rapaport announces when it‘s pointed out to him that he proposes to split the heist in equal shares among the four men -- with an additional one-third going to Frenchy. And to these guys, crime is just a necessary evil. ”I burn everything,“ shrugs Lovitz, a career insurance defrauder. ”That’s how I put two kids through college.“

It doesn‘t bother them that the shop is not next door to the bank, but rather a few addresses away; Ray reasons that this distance will make their tunneling less suspicious. Whatever Frenchy, a former topless dancer, lacks in couth, she makes up for in perception; she knows a stupid scheme when she hears one, and dumps scorn on Ray and his confederates. Long story short, they lease the storefront and install Frenchy upstairs selling cookies, a move that makes her and the would-be robbers fabulously wealthy and obviates the need for the heist.

From there the story follows the allegory of the fisherman’s wife: As Frenchy‘s company becomes richer, she seeks to raise herself higher and higher in society, realizing, along the way, how much of an albatross her husband is as he sputters Polish jokes at art-patron soirees while tailored in an explosion of Day-Glo clothing. Here, Hugh Grant enters as an art dealer and cosmopolitan culture vulture, a debonair gigolo whom Frenchy mistakes for her Henry Higgins. This is also where the film’s lessons on love and social climbing become evident.

Small Time Crooks is a slapstick morality tale that plays out through a delirious dream logic in which fortunes are amassed and reversed in the blink of an eye, in which characters and subplots similarly appear and vanish, and in which, curiously, ”punishment“ -- either for Ray‘s social-climbing wife or for the conniving Grant -- hardly exists. This, and the script’s almost Braille-like quality (you can feel the punch lines coming), make Small Time Crooks a guilty pleasure to watch. Somehow it all works, and the hoary admonition of finding true happiness in your own pigsty seems, if not new again, then acceptably refurbished. Even the scene where Frenchy is crushed to happen upon some society toffs who ridicule her vulgar home-decorating tastes seems painfully fresh, as though Dorothy Comingore never overheard this conversation in Citizen Kane.

Part of Small Time Crooks‘ charm comes from Allen’s fearless denunciation of our obsession with money, that scramble for personal wealth that has made the go-go 1980s pale in comparison with the last five years. In Allen‘s childhood, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia may have read the funnies over the radio during the city’s newspaper strike, but today the mayor of New York would more likely read the daily NASDAQ quotations. To Allen, for whom money remains the root of evil, ”Who wants to be a millionaire?“ is truly a rhetorical question. Not surprisingly, then, when the film ends with a Jackie Gleason line, Allen seems to be summoning from The Honeymooners‘ low-rent milieu the moral authority to fight the gilded -- and guiltless -- age in which he finds himself.

The film that Small Time Crooks most resembles is Take the Money and Run, Allen’s 1969 sendup of crime and prison films. At almost every turn in Small Time Crooks, there is the same anarchic farce-making, along with the possibility of outlandish romance, that illuminated his writer-director debut. Unlike Take the Money and Run, however, this is not a film of closeups -- Zhao Fei‘s camera seems intent on keeping its distance from the pores of the story’s characters, possibly because when it does occasionally linger on Allen‘s face, we see every one of the 24 years separating him from his film wife. Still, Allen should be given credit for allowing Ullman and supporting player Elaine May to steal most of the movie out from under him. Ullman’s boisterous tackiness and Joisey accent reinvigorate an archetype into a beguiling figure. May appears in what first seems to be the definition of a thankless role, that of Frenchy‘s dumb-as-dirt cousin whose worst, yet most redeeming, trait is that she takes everyone at their literal word. When a rich widower at a party compliments May on the way she carries herself, she points out how impossible it is for a person to carry herself. Like the widower -- and like Ray, for that matter -- we fall for May bit by bit, until her leaden observations seem to make disturbing sense.

In other words, this is one of the few Allen movies, if not the only one, in which you eagerly await the women’s replies to his dialogue. That‘s pretty scary, for while we’re used to watching Ullman portray an array of personalities, it‘s frankly unnerving to see Allen play Ralph Cramden. Instead of his trademark nebbish who is forced to witness and comment on the moral and intellectual mendacity that surrounds him, Allen plays a seriously defective mind. Yet his portrayal works in a Dumb and Dumber way, although, to be sure, there are some glimpses of the old Woody in the opening scenes. When he unlocks the door to his home, Ullman calls out to ask who’s there, to which Allen replies, ”What do you mean, ‘Who is it?’ It‘s the Pope -- I’ve always wanted to see your apartment!“ But after a while, Ullman and the others in the ensemble assert themselves, and, for once, it seems that Allen has struck a balance between self-indulgence and generosity -- and, perhaps, between his past and present.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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