Published May 1, 2000
Small Time Crooks has, like all Woody Allen’s films some excellent jokes. The best of them, however, are stupid-jokes (very popular in Hollywood lately) which, it always seems to me, is the comedic equivalent of dynamiting fish. It used to be drunks, now it’s idiots. Woody Allen himself plays Ray Winkler, a petty thief whose hoped-for big score comes from an unexpected direction as the cookie emporium they set up as a cover for a break-in makes them a lot more money than the break-in would if it hadn’t been botched. When Ray and his devoted wife, an ex-stripper called Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), suddenly find themselves rich they are naturally a bit out of their depth among the socialites of the Upper East Side where Frenchy is determined to make a splash. As Ray takes an interviewer around their lavish new apartment he points out the magnificent French antique armoire in one room. It’s Louis XIV. Or perhaps Louis XV. “I don’t know how high the Looies go,” he says, but he can assure us that it’s “the top Louis.”
Nor is that new-minted culture-vulture, Frenchy, any less prone to the faux pas. When the home of Henry James is pointed out to her and Ray, Ray asks, “Who?”
Frenchy digs him in the ribs: “The bandleader, stupid.” When their guide gently points out her mistake, she is quick to recover: “Oh yeah, The Hair-ess.”
“The ‘H’ is silent,” points out the guide.
“Oh, did he write that too.”
Ba da boom! We assume that Woody himself knows that The Heiress was a play and movie written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, though based on a novel by Henry James that was actually called Washington Square. But stupidity here goes a long way beyond just not having heard of Henry James. Ray has a bunch of even dumber pals, played by Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport and Tony Darrow, while on Frenchy’s side of the family there is also a comically dim cousin, May (Elaine May), whom even Ray thinks of as being of equine intelligence. May says things like: “He said I reminded him of his wife, who’s dead. But I think he meant before she died.” All these people get rich along with Ray and Frenchy.
But for all the thin charm of the film’s one liners, conceptually it is a mess, a hodgepodge. There are far too many comic ideas which jostle against one another and seemingly without any thought for the possibilities of cooperation between them. The most promising comic idea is that of the stupid crooks getting rich from the cookie shop — for which Frenchy lends them the money and bakes the cookies before settling down to run the shop — and continuing with their disastrous bank job while too comically thick-witted to see that it is not the bank but the cookie shop that is the real treasure.
This might have been a telling commentary on the gold-rush 90s, but Mr Allen soon gets bored with his comic situation, and the bank job with all its slapstick related to the tunneling is forgotten. Instead, the cookie shop franchises clones of itself all over the country and the comedy becomes “Ray and Frenchy Get Rich.” Their stupid friends, except for May, virtually drop out of the film at this stage. From this point, it goes on to become a somewhat less-promising Pygmalion story. Frenchy wants to assume a position in the social hierarchy commensurate with her wealth and hires a young and charming flâneur called David (Hugh Grant) to instruct her and Ray in “culture.” Ray naturally grumbles about this and prefers to spend time with his old pals and fellow philistines while Frenchy, in whose name all the stock of the company is registered, is being wooed away from him by David, obviously up to no good.
A send-up of what still remains of “high society” in our times, in the manner of My Man Godfrey, might have been possible here. Or is it a high class con-man out of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise who should have been the focus of our sympathies? Neither comic idea seems to interest Woody, who chooses to make little if anything out of either. The snobby rich are let off with little more damage than a few jokes about cosmetic surgery while David turns out to be just a rat, and an uninteresting rat. So then is the satire directed at cultural pretentiousness more generally? There is, it is true, an avant garde dance or theatre performance that looks more like something out of the 60s than anything you would see today. Ray dutifully falls asleep in it, but it proves to be yet another comic dead end.
His comic invention having petered out, Woody decides to wrap things up after a quick and painless 90 minutes with a “Honeymooners”-type ending as the ever-savvy and street-smart Frenchy partially retrieves their ruined fortunes by stealing back from David a jeweled cigarette case she had given him that once belonged to the Duke of Windsor. “All that matters is that we have each other,” Frenchy soothes.
“I’m such a loser,” moans Ray.
“It was you who taught me how to open a safe,” she says brightly.
“Sweetheart, you’re the greatest,” says Ray.
Maybe a more Gleason-like personality than Woody’s could still bring a line like this off, but in his mouth it sounds, as most of his recent films have sounded to my ears, like going through the motions.