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SMALL TIME CROOKS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Woody Allen, Tony Darrow, Hugh Grant, George Grizzard, Jon Lovitz, Elaine May, Michael Rapaport, Elaine Stritch, Tracey Ullman
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Talent Files, Production Notes
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  December 19, 2000

Film ***1/2

Small Time Crooks represents less of a departure than a return to a more base level of comedy for Woody Allen…it doesn’t quite reach the farcical proportions of his earlier hits like Bananas, but it doesn’t strive for the more highbrow achievements of his films like Annie Hall.  It finds a good, middle ground, and as such, I think this is a film that will even appeal to non-Woody fans.

For starters, it’s hilarious…easily one of the Woodman’s funniest.  And it represents a change of pace for him…instead of the nebbish intellectual, he’s the nebbish moron in this picture:  Ray, a would-be criminal with instincts so bad, he spent a couple of years in jail for a heist that failed because everyone on his team wore Ronald Reagan masks to pull the job, and nobody could tell who was who!

Ray’s latest (foolproof?) plan:  rent a storefront a couple of doors down from the bank.  While his longsuffering wife, Frenchy (Ullman) bakes cookies as a front, he and his team will drill a tunnel underground, come up under the bank vault, and make off with their millions.  The first time they try to drill and end up rupturing a water main SHOULD have been omen enough that this wouldn’t work.  It certainly doesn’t help that Ray’s crew is populated by guys more dense than he.  My favorite is the one who wears his mining helmet backwards because “it looks cooler”…never mind that the light is pointing the wrong way.

The film soon takes one of its many turns:  while the attempt to tunnel is failing, Frenchy’s cookie business is actually taking off.  Soon she’s forced to hire her cousin May (Elaine May) to help her run the legitimate part of the business.  But May brings no brainpower to the think tank herself, constantly blabbing about the men tunneling in the basement for ‘expansion’.

But soon that doesn’t matter…Ray and Frenchy end up with a goldmine because of the cookies, and are finally able to give up their life of crime.  But what’s the old saying about mules in horses’ harnesses?  It was invented for this couple.  Rich they are, but as for taste…ugh!  I don’t know whether to praise or pity the art direction in this film, because those who did it obviously had to grit their teeth and come up with the most atrocious look to their refurbished apartment.  And while money earns them a spot amongst good society, Frenchy soon comes to realize that she has a lot to learn before she can fit in.

Enter David (Grant), an art dealer with excellent taste and not a lot of cash.  Frenchy believes that in exchange for her patronage, David can teach her and Ray about the finer things in life.  Two problems, though:  Ray could care less about fitting in; preferring instead poker and beer with his old partners in crime.  And David sees an opportunity in Frenchy to land for himself the ultimate sugar mama.

Soon, it becomes clear that the wealth the duo had always dreamed about is driving a wedge between them.  Frenchy leaves for a cultural tour of Europe with David, while Ray becomes convinced that his only chance at feeling alive again is to pull a job…any job.  Both soon learn they aren’t much good without the other, though…poor Frenchy when she learns her fortune has vanished under the guidance of fraudulent accountants, and Ray, when he attempts to switch a fake emerald necklace in the safe of a wealthy socialite, but ends up with the same level of success his crimes always brought him.

In the end, Small Time Crooks may not take its place alongside Woody Allen’s most important films.  It will, however, be remembered for how well it delivers on laughs.  The film is hysterically well-paced from beginning to end, with enjoyable twists and turns that keep the audience tuned in for the entire ride, as there’s no way of telling which direction Allen will take his story and characters in.

This has to be one of his best comic casts, too, headed by the always brilliant Tracey Ullman, sporting a perfect New York accent and bringing a sense of humor and reality to the delightful Frenchy.  Elaine May turns in an equally memorable performance as the low-watt bulb of a cousin.  Hugh Grant is smarmy and wickedly charming as the would-be villain, and even comedian Jon Lovitz gets an amusing turn as a guy who makes his living torching buildings and collecting insurance.

But credit must go first and foremost to Allen, for his sunny screenplay and for his sense of direction, which isn’t diminished by the fact that he’s making a simpler, more raw kind of comedy.  Many of his trademarks are still in play, from the lengthy unbroken camera shots relying on perfect ensemble acting, to the careful-but-not-gratuitous attention to sets and details, even to a single moment when he breaks through the so-called “fourth wall” and grins wickedly at the audience.

Dreamworks may be reaching for the comedy crown this year…three of the funniest films I’ve seen have come from their studio:  Chicken Run, The Road to El Dorado, and this one.  Small Time Crooks is a pure comedy triumph from Woody Allen…anyone needing a good laugh or two would do well to give this one a spin.

Video ***1/2

This is Woody Allen’s first venture with Dreamworks, and the resulting DVD is one of the best looking transfers for one of his movies.  Small Time Crooks is an easy superior in the transfer department to any of the MGM released discs, the Tri Star ones, or even New Line’s Deconstructing Harry.  This is an anamorphic transfer with plenty of crisp detail and lots of excellent coloring.  Some of the interiors of Ray and Frenchy’s lavish apartment are almost too much, as a matter of fact:  strong, bright, and harshly contrasting colors are used for effect to demonstrate the lack of taste these people have (and if you think the pad is bad, check out some of Ray’s suits!).  The colors are very well contained, even when offered in extremes.  Images are generally very sharp, with no noticeable grain, distortion or evidence of compression, and the print itself is in quite good shape.  Overall, a highly commendable effort.

Audio ***

Those who aren’t normally Woody Allen fans should note:  Woody mixes all of his films with a one-channel mono soundtrack, so the fact that Small Time Crooks is presented that way is not Dreamworks’ call, but Woody’s.  For the most part, his movies including this one don’t require anything fancy:  they’re mostly dialogue oriented and what little music there is comes straight from his collection of scratchy old classic records.  This is a fine presentation of a limited soundtrack, with good clarity, no noise, and even some bits that offer good dynamic range for a 1-channel mix…no complaints.

Features **

Although the packaging I saw didn’t have a features list printed, there are some included:  a theatrical trailer, production notes (both on the disc and included in the booklet), and talent files for the film’s many stars and behind-the-scenes talents.  A commentary track, sadly, wasn’t possible, since Woody Allen refuses to review any of his films once they’re completed.

Summary:

Live a little…Small Time Crooks is not a Woody Allen masterpiece, but it’s still an awfully funny picture that delivers big time on the laughs, and it’s still smarter than the average film comedy coming from Hollywood these days.  You don’t have to be a Woody fan to enjoy this one…just someone who enjoys a good laugh.