Small Time Crooks
review by Gregory Avery, 26 May 2000

At the beginning of Small Time Crooks, Woody Allen's thirtieth feature film, Allen, as Ray Winkler, slowly appears from behind a newspaper he's reading while standing on a New York City sidewalk, as he becomes entranced by the idea of robbing a bank standing right across the street from him. (A recording of Hal Kemp singing With a Little Money and You beautifully sets the mood on the soundtrack.) The bank is located only a few doors down from a vacant pizza joint.

Since Ray has already served time in prison for robbery, this new scheme does not go down well with his wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), but Ray, along with two accomplices, Tommy (Tony Darrow) and Denny (Michael Rapaport, definitely a step up from Kiss Toledo Goodbye), and an unexpected third (Jon Lovitz), lease the pizza joint, with the intent of having Frenchy, whose home-made cookies are adored by Denny, run the upstairs as a cookie shop, while the four men, in the basement, use the oldest plan in the book: tunneling under and up into the bank vault. It's not as if these men were out-and-out dumbbells; it's just that they are the type of guys who seem fated to get but one important detail always wrong. They get set to use a power drill, for instance, then get into an argument over whether it's going to make too much noise or not. ("Whoever's gonna work the drill, I can tell you now, it's gonna make a lotta noise," says Denny.) As it turns out, noise is the last thing they needed to worry about.

What they don't expect, though, is that Frenchy's home-made cookies catch on with the public. She has to bring in help to accommodate the lines that start forming around the block. The bank robbery never comes off, but, a year later, Frenchy's cookie-shop front has turned into an empire.

The movie then shifts-gears to show how life for the Winklers would be once they were flush with money, legitimately. Instead of retiring to Miami, which is what Ray wanted to do all along, he and Frenchy end up in an uptown apartment filled with furniture of astonishing taste. The production designer, Santo Loquasto, and costumer, Suzanne McCabe, get the showy-without-the-remedy-of-taste look precisely, to increasing effect (the matched set of gilt ibis statues, the huge stuffed gnome in the bedroom, and the weirdly tailored purple-blue, high-waisted blazer and mustard-colored slacks Ray wears in one scene). But any humor made at the Winklers' expense is cut short by Ullman's portrayal of Frenchy as someone yearning to belong, somehow, in a big way. Ullman beautifully delivers a scene where Frenchy's pink bubble bursts and she suddenly sees, as other people are seeing, what she really looks like.

So, she gets an art dealer, David (Hugh Grant), to educate and show her how to be refined, tasteful, and, as Ray puts it, "putting on airs." The scenes not only give Ullman and Grant, two of the best comic performers to come out of the U.K. in recent years, a chance to work together to subtle effect, but they also introduce two new elements: how wealth ends up pulling Ray and Frenchy apart (Ray is perfectly content to have a hamburger for dinner instead of quail, and stay-in to watch old movies on TV), and how the Winklers end up on the other end of some crookery, themselves.

This is the first time in years that Allen has incorporated physical humor into his films -- one goes back to Annie Hall, in which he did battle with a spider "the size of a Buick," and sneezed when he attempted to partake of some cocaine, for the first time in his life, at a party -- and he seems to be quite enjoying it, here. Small Time Crooks culminates in a big party that Ray and his cousin, May, go to which is being thrown by a socialite (the peerless Elaine Stritch) who has an expensive necklace in an upstairs safe. It's not that Ray needs the money: one senses that he feels the only way he can get back to having a normal life again is to pull one more job. The sequence has some hugely funny moments: Ray trying to, inconspicuously, go upstairs by walking backwards, being mistaken for a physician because of the stethoscope 'round his neck, and haplessly slamming the safe door shut during every distraction. It also provides some grist for Ray and Frenchy's eventual reunion, in which they become romantic when he recalls that, during their first date, she listened to how the tumblers worked while he cracked a safe. They may start out, with all cylinders firing, like the Bickersons, with the type of perfectly-aimed salvos only people who have been living together for a long time can deliver, but they end up like the Kramdens, sparing and then realizing that they're really made for each other.

Tracey Ullman has worked for Allen before, but either her roles were reduced (as in Bullets Over Broadway), or eliminated altogether. (Ben Stiller was supposed to have appeared in Small Time Crooks, but his part didn't make it into the picture.) Allen seems to have written the part of Frenchy with her in mind, and Ullman couldn't have done a better job with it than she does, here. But the one performer who made me laugh the most and at-length is the vaguely-recognizable actress who plays cousin May, the type of relative who, somewhere, seems to have lost a few connections along the line, or was winged by a cab and hasn't quite got her bearings, yet. She's the one with whom Ray watches White Heat on TV, sipping cola and eating Cracker Jacks, while Frenchy and David, in Venice, are listening to a cello soloist when Frenchy's cell phone rings. ("What is it? I'm in a crypt!") She's also the one who tries to cover for Ray at the party while he robs the safe: when, in reference to Aspen, a couple asks her, "Do you ski?" May, at a loss, replies, "Do either of you play miniature golf?" She also meets a wonderful man (George Grizzard) with whom she strikes a chord. She tells Ray that he said she reminds him of his late wife, "well, not when she's dead, but when she was alive."

If the comic timing and delivery are familiar, that's because it's Elaine May, who, with Mike Nichols, did some legendary comedy sketch work in the 50s and 60s. I can with all honesty say that her performance in Small Time Crooks was, at one point, so funny that I laughed so hard it hurt. Elaine May herself has taken a beating in recent years, whether with her directorial work (the much-hashed-over Ishtar) or her writing (the stage comedy Taller Than a Dwarf, which opened disastrously on Broadway this spring). But what a comeback, here, with a funny and utterly original performance. Enough to make one wish she'll at least giving acting one more go. 

Written and 
Directed by:

Woody Allen

Woody Allen
Tracey Ullman
Tony Darrow
Michael Rapaport
Jon Lovitz 
Elaine May
Hugh Grant
Elaine Stritch



  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.