Small Time Woody, but thankfully so.
Woody Allen looks as though he’s having some fun making movies once again. For a time there, with the charming but uneven Sweet and Lowdown (1999), the dull Celebrity (1998) with Kenneth Branagh’s uninspiring Woody Allen impersonation, and the pitiful “musical” Everybody Says I Love You (1996), it was becoming a chore to sit through Allen’s efforts. Not so with his latest, though. Small Time Crooks is no masterpiece, but there are enough chuckles and fine performances to make the 95-minute film an amiable time-passer.
Dreamworks has now released Small Time Crooks in a nice-looking, if spare, DVD package.
Ex-con Ray Winkler has tried but not made much of a success of going straight when one day he has an idea for one last big-time heist that will set him and his wife Frenchy up for a life of ease in Florida. The idea? Rent a vacant pizza parlour two doors away from a bank, tunnel into the bank from the basement, clean out the vault on a weekend, and make a clean getaway. With the aid of three friends — all about as inept as Ray — the plan is put in motion. Meanwhile, the main floor of the pizza parlour has been turned into a cookie outlet, run by Frenchy. Predictably, Ray and his friends botch their efforts, but Frenchy’s cookies are such a smash that she and Ray become millionaires.
Settling into a life of luxury, Ray soon becomes bored with success and longs for the simple enjoyments of old — pizzas, poker and beer. Meanwhile, Frenchy seeks to improve herself so that she can fit into high society without making a fool of herself. She enlists the aid of suave art dealer David to educate her in the finer things.
Soon Ray and Frenchy are leading separate lives as a result, but another of Ray’s big ideas for “one-last-score” and a cookie business surprise for Frenchy put everything in doubt.
Woody Allen’s films work best when they deal lovingly with the idiosyncrasies of New York life. Historically, Allen has focused on the trendy or arty sets in delivering his material, with the best examples being Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1990), and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). In Small Time Crooks, the approach is a little different with Ray and Frenchy leading a “Honeymooners”- like existence, before moving into the big-time. Once his protagonists become rich, Allen seems on safer ground with the material and we experience the familiar (if intentionally exaggerated in the case of this film) jabs at the pretentiousness of high society existence for which Allen is known. In the main, these hit the mark and the film is full of small chuckles, but no real belly laughs.
A fine cast has been assembled. Most notable is Tracey Ullman who seems to have a really good time playing the brassy Frenchy, particularly when she becomes a fish-out-of-water in high society. She just lights up the screen with her vivacious personality. Hugh Grant, in a role somewhat reminiscent of his work in Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), is quite effective as David the art dealer. His characteristic air of bemusement works well as a response to the social gaffes that Frenchy is continually making. Elaine May as the dim-witted cousin May, the woman Ray increasingly seems drawn to as he becomes disenchanted with high society life, is a good foil for Allen’s quips. It’s also good to see comedienne Elaine Stritch in a small role as society matron Chi Chi Potter. Jon Lovitz and Michael Rapaport are fun as two of Ray’s crooks, but their contribution is mainly confined to the early parts of the film.
There’s an air of comfortableness about Small Town Crooks. After you settle in to the film and see the way things are going, you’re happy to sit back and just let the rest happen. Aside from seeing Woody back in familiar comedy territory with a character that does a lot less whining than had become the norm for him, this is probably due to the well-oiled machinery of a crew that has worked with Allen for many years. It includes producer Jean Doumanian (seven films in seven years), production designer Santo Loquasto (20 films over the past two decades), executive producer Letti Aronson (seven films in seven years), and costume designer Suzanne McCabe (three films in seven years). Among the players, Small Time Crooks represents Tracey Ullman’s third outing with Allen.
DreamWorks has given us a good, workable DVD of Small Time Crooks. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen preserving the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with 24 scene selections. The image is generally sharp with rich colours, deep blacks and good shadow detail. Edge enhancement is rather noticeable from time to time, however. The sound track is one-channel mono, but for a dialogue-driven film, does the job quite adequately.
As is typical with Allen films, supplements are meager. There is a theatrical trailer, production notes accessible by the menu and also reproduced on a four-page pamphlet, and cast and crew information for 17 individuals.
Small Time Crooks is an enjoyable comedy — a good evening’s entertainment if you’re not expecting anything too startling. It provides a good ration of chuckles and several high caliber performances. Best of all, for Woody Allen fans, it gives us more of the old-time Allen in his dim-witted nebbish persona without so much of the whining that has tended to characterize his more recent outings. DreamWorks’s DVD is a nice, workable presentation of the film, but rather skimpy on supplementary content. Ardent Woody Allen fans will want to have this disc; casual admirers will probably be content with a rental.