Small Time Crooks

Directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, Elaine May, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, Elaine Stritch.
MPAA Rating: PG for language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
May 22, 2000

It was exactly four months ago that I reviewed Woody Allen's last film, Sweet and Lowdown. At that time, it finally received national distribution, but its 1999 release in Los Angeles and New York allowed it to win several major award nominations. Now, his first film of the 21st century (or his last of the 20th -- for those who must be precise) is getting immediate wide distribution, and deservedly so.

Allen returns to a starring role as Ray Winkler, an ex-con who works as a dishwasher in New York. He has what he thinks is a brilliant idea: rob a bank by tunnelling into the vault. This is possible because a pizza shop on the same block has been closed down, and is available for rent. He convinces his wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), to go along with the deal, in which she'd be able to run a cookie shop as a front.

With his loser friends (Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, and Tony Darrow) in on the scheme, Ray has a great deal of trouble gathering enough competence to do the job. The prospect of robbing a bank starts becoming less attractive as Frenchy's shop really takes off, producing the city's best cookies.

The best and most welcome thing about Small Time Crooks is that the plot quickly goes off in a direction that cannot be determined by the trailer. What is being advertised is the farcical humor of the beginning, which fondly recalls Allen's earliest work. He proves that, when he wants to, he can still make straight-ahead comedy better than anybody. But, the underlying intelligence separates him from his more commercially-oriented colleagues. The film becomes more character-driven as the initial situation is played out, which would spell failure in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.

Now we are in the realm that Allen excells at. He casts the best actors he can find (and they are generally willing, since many of them get nominated for and win Academy Awards), and lets them work out their characters and the situations he has created. Ullman has an incredible range, but shows here that limiting herself to a single character doesn't slow her down. A wonderful surprise is to see Elaine May return to film acting after a ten-year hiatus, during which she has written several successful plays and films. She is perfect as Frenchy's cousin May, who can usually be counted on to cause trouble.

There are also good performances from Hugh Grant (whose part I will not reveal) and Elaine Stritch, the venerable stage actress who embarrassed herself last week in Screwed. Another refugee from that horrid little film, Danny DeVito, also makes a fine recovery this week in The Big Kahuna. It's always pleasing to see good actors get back on their feet in so little time.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Small Time Crooks (2000) contributor Lauren Snyder also runs a website dedicated to Elaine May and her legendary partner Mike Nichols. For a great deal of information, and her own review of this film, please visit A Website with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan