Small Time Crooks

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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-

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