Sunday, February 1, 2009
Small Time Crooks
Woody Allen's much-maligned residency at Dreamworks Pictures in the early years of the new millennium is generally viewed now as the nadir of his career, the low point for a once-great director who many critics had long since given up on anyway. However, though the first film of this period, Small Time Crooks, represents a clean break from the work Woody had been making in the preceding years, it's a fine, funny film when taken on its own merits. Certainly, this is the most straightforward the director had been since his "early, funny ones," and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Directly after making a trio of his most pitch-black comedies yet — culminating with Sweet and Lowdown, a faux-documentary biography of a misogynistic, drunkard jazz musician — Woody retreated into the simple good humor of this farce about dumb criminals, a conscious nod to his first directorial feature, Take the Money and Run. This film includes some of Woody's most inspired physical comedy since, probably, Sleeper, or at the very least the great helium-fueled chase sequence in Broadway Danny Rose. In any event, though there's still plenty of fast-paced patter, this is the first time in many years that the comic known for his verbal wit allowed himself to fully indulge in more madcap setups. The result might feel like a bit of a step back, a nostalgic film that fits more comfortably in Woody's past than as a product of his mature career, but it doesn't make it any less funny.
The film's central characters are typical Woody figures in at least one way, however: they're average folks looking to move up in the world. The failed bank robber Ray (Woody) and his manicurist wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) are discontented, tired of barely scraping by. So Ray concocts what he thinks is an ingenious plot: they'll buy a closed pizza parlor that's a few stores down from a bank, drill a tunnel beneath the shop's floor, and break into the bank that way. They buy the pizza place and convert it into a cookie shop, with Frenchy doing the baking, while Ray enlists three of his crook friends to help out with the scheme in the basement. Woody proves he hasn't forgotten how to stage physical comedy, and the sequence where the drilling immediately ruptures a water line — literally almost as soon as Ray has touched the drill to the wall — is delirious slapstick. It helps that Woody also surrounds himself with a trio of great comedic actors as his larcenous buddies: Denny (Michael Rapaport), Tommy (Tony Darrow) and Benny (Jon Lovitz). The crooks have a naturally funny rapport, particularly in the manic flood sequence or the mathematically impaired discussion of fractions or the scene where Denny tries to convince Ray that their mining helmets look so much cooler when they're put on backwards. Meanwhile, as the crooks are bungling their way through tunnels that lead anywhere but the actual bank, Frenchy's cookie shop is becoming a surprise success, with lines stretching down the block and news crews coming to document the big sensation. The bank robbery is soon abandoned, and the whole crew winds up forming an accidental cookie empire instead.
Ray and Frenchy are like so many Woody characters in that they have a desire to do better, to rise above the lowly hand they've been dealt in life. In this case, they are literal social climbers, nouveau riche pretenders who want to be able to fit in with "high society" — at least, Frenchy does; Ray just wants to be able to get a good cheeseburger and watch a ballgame on TV. Woody mines Frenchy's outrageous taste for some rather mean-spirited jokes about lower-class junk taste, similar to the mockery directed at Mira Sorvino's gauche stripper in Mighty Aphrodite. As in the earlier film, however, the jokes about the tackiness of the decor are tempered by the overall sympathy and affection the film has for the character of Frenchy. Despite the cheap shots at people whose taste runs to leopard-skin-pattern chairs and gold-plated, well, everything, Woody evinces a genuine understanding for both Ray's desire for simple pleasures and Frenchy's perhaps misplaced but no less earnest urge to make herself into a better, more sophisticated person. To that end, she begins hanging around the debonair art dealer David (Hugh Grant), who agrees to educate her in the finer things while making a play for her newfound wealth. Woody's allegiances become clear at this point: he may mock Frenchy's tacky interior design, but he saves his really brutal satire for the portrayal of an avant-garde dance performance where Ray, with ample justification, falls soundly asleep.
Woody's sharp-tongued dialogue propels the film through the sometimes creaky structure of its second half: the drastic shifts and time-jumps in the narrative make it seem like an epic even at a trim hour and a half. The film especially shines, however, whenever Woody is paired off with the great comedienne Elaine May, who plays Frenchy's daft cousin. The chemistry between Woody and May is electric, and their scenes together are alive with the thrill of watching two fantastic comics bounce off one another. May, playing an unbelievably stupid woman, gets some of Woody's choicest dialogue: "he said he reminded me of his wife, who's dead, but I assume he meant when she was still alive." During a late scene where the duo attends a fancy party together, she gets some equally great moments solo — like the way she too-literally takes Ray's advice not to talk too much, to stick to "the weather or something," instructions she follows precisely by intoning a verbatim TV weather forecast to everyone she meets. The film's pacing sometimes goes a little slack in its second half, but it is usually quickly buoyed back up by the great performances from May, Ullman and Woody himself. This lightweight, frankly disposable comedy isn't one of Woody's best, but it's fun and funny, an enjoyable diversion that harkens back to the director's earliest joke-packed episodic comedies.