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With: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, Elaine May, Michael Rappaport, Elaine Strich, Jon Lovitz
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: PG for language
Running Time: 94
Date: 05/19/2000

Small Time Crooks (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Stolen Gems

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I've finally realized how difficult it is for me to review a Woody Allen movie. Many of his movies have represented moviegoing plateaus in my life, and I'm always a bit reluctant to say I don't like a Woody Allen film. Furthermore, my hopes are always up. I always expect that the next film will be as good as some of his best works, like Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and Husbands and Wives (1992). When I see a great Woody Allen film, I just tingle. There's no way -- or need -- to explain it.

Now that Woody is past 60, one path he might have taken is to slow down and become more reflective or thoughtful in his filmmaking. But his last three films, Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998), and Sweet and Lowdown (1999), have all had a strange mean streak to them. They've been sour and angry. However, I'm happy to report that the new film, Small Time Crooks, is a return to good laughs and good fun. It's a minor Allen, equal to, say, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), but well worth seeing.

Allen stars as Ray Winkler, a small time crook. He and his partners Michael Rappaport, Tony Darrow, and Jon Lovitz come up with a plan to rob a bank by renting out a neighboring store and tunneling underneath. Tracey Ullman co-stars as Frenchie Winkler, Ray's wife, and Elaine May appears as cousin May, who are both also involved in the plan. I won't tell you how, but the crew ends up getting rich. But since they're New Jersey thugs, they have a hard time getting along in society, so they hire art dealer Hugh Grant to help them out.

I don't want to give any more away. In Allen's films, the plot twists themselves are often as funny as the one-liners, an aspect that most of today's one-sentence pitch-line comedies don't have. I can say that the cast shines in their roles, especially Ullman, May, and Grant. If Allen's films almost always generate Oscar nominations, I would like to see May get one for her endearingly stupid cousin May who is always saying something strangely inappropriate. When at a high-class party Allen tells her to discuss the weather as a diversion, she does it full-fledged, "low pressure movements with a chance of showers..."

The movie is loaded with brilliant throwaway lines and scenes. One of the funniest has been used on the TV ad, where Rappaport is wearing his miner's helmet backwards, with the flashlight pointing behind him because, "it looks cool this way." (The scene goes even further and gets even funnier.) In describing Rappaport to Ullman, Allen says, "he has street smarts." To which Ullman replies, "yeah, but full of potholes."

Unlike most Hollywood comedies, Allen has always taken care to make his films look like films and not sitcoms, using the best cinematographers in the business; from Gordon Willis (The Godfather) to Carlo DiPalma (Blow Up) to Sven Nykvist (Persona). Now he's stumbled upon Zhao Fei, who also did such a wonderful job on the faded reds of Sweet and Lowdown. Zhao has photographed such gems of the Chinese cinema as Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern (1992), Tian Zhaungzhaung's The Horse Thief (1986), and Chen Kaige's recent The Emperor and the Assassin. He lends a clarity and beauty to Small Time Crooks especially in an early rooftop scene where the Winklers discuss their future.

When I spoke to Hugh Grant last summer, he told me that Small Time Crooks would be a return to Allen's "earlier, funnier films" (a line used famously in 1980's Stardust Memories), and he was right. Yet, at this late date, I think that if you're not already an Allen fan, you won't be converted by the new film (especially if you've been weaned on Farrelly brothers and Adam Sandler films). I wish I could explain what secret element it is that makes a GREAT Allen film that's missing here, but I won't let it bother me too much. I had too much fun laughing.

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