Woody Allen wants us to love him again.
In his newest movie, Small Time Crooks, he plays a charmingly inept, well, small-time crook. As such, he works the audience not unlike Bob Hope, one of Allen's idols in filmmaking. Just as he did in Love and Death, Allen is playing the wisecracking, weaselly weakling, but this time, he isn't an intellectual, to say the least.
He plays Ray Winkler, an ex-con (known sarcastically in the joint as "The Brain") who is married to Frenchy, an ex-stripper (Tracey Ullman), and works as a dishwasher. ("I tried to make the pet cemetery work," he whimpers to Frenchy.)
Ullman is once again the best thing in a not-wonderful movie. You believe she and Allen belong together, unlike, say, Allen and Mira Sorvino, or Allen and Julia Roberts.
Ray and his gang decide to rent a store near a bank and tunnel from the store to the bank. Frenchy is selling cookies in the store as a front, while the tunnelling goes on in the basement. Her cookies are suddenly the hit of Manhattan, much the way the real Soup Nazi became popular after being mentioned on Seinfeld.
Allen has decided to make a film in a genre he loves, the caper film. (See Take the Money and Run and Manhattan Murder Mystery.) That it is a slow-moving movie with occasional bursts of slapstick is just part of the style he is working here, just as if it were a movie of the 1930s, when Hope was a movie star.
Just as in 1930s movies, we recognize almost all of the actors, and the good will they bring from other roles helps carry them here. Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport and Tony Darrow play members of Ray's gang, who sadly disappear as the movie changes focus. Elaine Stritch (mostly known for Broadway roles) is sweetly ditzy as a socialite.
There are a few people here whose names might be recognizable but who we simply don't see often. The best of these here is Elaine May, who plays Frenchy's cousin May. Always breathtakingly beautiful in her 1950s comedic work with Mike Nichols, she is still lovely and funny as an idiot who can't quite put her finger on anything.
But suddenly Frenchy and Ray are rich, and the focus of the film moves to the ever-popular "fish-out-of-water" genre. Frenchy wants to be a patron of the arts; Ray wants to watch television and have a cheeseburger.
Clearly these two are drifting apart, and there to take advantage of Frenchy is the suave, snooty Hugh Grant, who will lead Frenchy on. Grant is wearing a little thin, but seeing him play someone who knows just how attractive he is gives him an extra level of interest he rarely possesses.
The references in Small Time Crooks are obvious, from Hope's movies to The Honeymooners, when Allen threatens Ullman with (practically), "Pow! Zoom! Right to the moon!" and ends the movie with (almost), "Baby, you're the greatest."
Whatever the size of the budget, this is clearly a "little" film, which makes it perfect for Allen's fans, but it seems unlikely that it will draw any new ones.
So the obvious thing to say is, "Here's a Woody Allen movie. You like those? Here's one."
Small Time Crooks
DIRECTOR: Woody Allen
CAST: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Elaine Stritch
SCREENPLAY: Woody Allen
RATING: PG; mature situations
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
Writer-director Woody Allen returns to the caper comedy in his latest movie, a tepid effort that's likely to please his fans but won't draw any new ones.