SMALL TIME CROOKS (2000)

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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Yeah he’s street smart. His brain’s got pot holes.”

Allen has done, and continues to do, many things very well as a filmmaker. Yet what got him his start in the industry, and what arguably made him famous enough to showcase his assorted mastery, was his razor sharp wit and hysterical one liners. Reuniting with legendary comedian Elaine May, one of his nightclub scene touring partners in the 1960s, Small Time Crooks is the first throwback to a pure Woody Allen laugh-a-minute lighthearted comedy since 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite, and arguably 1973s Sleeper. As a modern ‘early funny one’ cousin to Take the Money and Run it’s a minor work among Allen’s more accomplished and resonant pieces in the last two and a half decades. He refers to as a “trivial picture”, which is accurate, but it’s harmless silliness.

Minor as it may be, the story of Tracey Ullman as disenchanted wife Frenchy, to Allen’s lowlife criminal Ray, is an empathetic one. She wants to better their life not by securing money as a means to an end (whether through bank robberies or an unexpectedly booming cookie business as the front for the robbery), but to become a more cultured, civilized and refined couple. The money enables them to enter high society, become a patron of the arts, fit in at a swanky fundraising dinners, embrace international opera houses and cultivate new friends of privileged social stature. Yet this wealth and social status doesn’t make them happy and they begin to miss the simple pleasures of their pastlife. It’s a film about integrity and who we truly are as humans; what our instincts resort to, at our core, in our natural state, no matter how much we seek change and growth and development. And owning that.

Notch up another slew of award-nominated and award-winning female performances for Allen: Ullman was nominated for a Golden Globe, losing out to Renée Zellweger in Nurse Betty, while Elaine May won Best Supporting Actress at the National Society of Film Critics Awards. Ullman, who was a treat as the giddy Eden in Bullets Over Broadway, is superb as Frency, with Allen describing her as “limitless in her ability”. She moves beyond caricature to embody a genuine person with nuances who’s working through her insecurities and vulnerabilities. It’s a skillfully measured performance with conviction and precise comic timing that give Allen’s classic one liners real pizzazz. She and her smarmy art dealer David (Hugh Grant) have some histrionic, hilarious and highly energetic scenes. It’s quite shrewd casting in that Grant someone you usually want to hate yet is often portrayed as a (faux) charming protagonist. Allen, however, facilitates your hate to be unleashed. It’s also nice to see Elaine Stritch return after her strong performance in the disappointing September.

It’s really fun to be back in this world of sight gags and cracking jokes: “You know you’re working with a genius, right? I mean, we’re all smart, but he wears glasses.”, “My accountants. Ray said to trust them as the whole firm had moustaches.” Yet despite the sweet and clever conclusion, including a satisfying wrap up of a story arc involving a Duke of Windsor flask, it always feels like it’s in too much of a rush to move onto the next joke or set up. This renders a lot of the jokes, and the film itself, fairly forgettable.

This foray back to trivial laughs would be the first of a four picture comedy deal with DreamWorks, following Allen contributing to the huge success of their animated release Antz a couple of years earlier. All were written at the same time after mining his drawer of archived draft ideas: “I’m getting older and who knows what could happen to me? I don’t want to have them lying around in my drawer as unrealized, unattempted great comic ideas that I never got to.” Most find the four films a comic low point for Allen, but there’s some charm to the first two amidst an artist surprisingly working to prioritise pleasing his financers within a confined creative space for the first time.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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