A throwback to his Broadway Danny Rose style of moviemaking, Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks
feels like an attempt to please an audience that doesn’t exist anymore.
Elevated by a truly comic ensemble that works hard to replace whatever
inspiration is missing from the screenplay, this is inarguably a minor
work, more assured than Deconstructing Harry but lacking the defensive aggression that made the earlier film more than a nostalgia piece.
Allen’s character, an ex-con sarcastically known as The Brain, opens
the film by hatching a half-witted get-rich-quick scheme involving the
digging of a tunnel from the basement of a bogus bakery to a nearby
bank. To his chagrin, his bumbling assemblage of would-be crooks is
singlehandedly upstaged by wife Tracey Ullman, whose cookie recipes are
a hit with the neighborhood and offer a legitimate route to the top of
the world. Elaine May steals pretty much each scene in which she plays
Ullman’s dim sister.
So far, so good, but the remainder of the film deals routinely
with the divide between high culture and low culture, as embodied in
the gap between rich and poor. Gaining wealth but retaining her
hopelessly poor taste, Ullman has the misfortune of asking smoothie
Hugh Grant to help her gain an appreciation of the finer things. The
shady Grant hopes to separate her from as much of that money as
possible. Something aspiring to hilarity ensues.
Some of the jokes bear the patina of a canned food shelved long past
its sell-by date, but what’s worse is the lack of warmth. Allen has
made some wonderful movies celebrating the guileless charm of working
class New Yorkers, as well as those that find being pampered and
neurotic an equally romantic proposition. Unlike the TV writer in Manhattan who found contemporary art hopelessly pretentious, or the working woman in The Purple Rose of Cairo
who took solace in Astaire and Rogers movies, it’s painfully apparent
that the main characters here really are hopelessly gauche. Indeed, the
point is that their innate cluelessness transcends even the
transformational power of the dollar. I suppose Allen intends the
audience to feel a kinship with these simple folks, but it comes across
as condescension, which he doesn’t wear well. B-