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USA 2000
Directed by
Woody Allen
94 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Small Time Crooks

Synopsis: Ray (Woody Allen), a dishwasher with a minor criminal record, rents an empty store in order to tunnel into an adjoining bank vault. As a cover, Frenchy (Tracy Ullman), his wife starts a cookie business. Whilst the planned robbery misfires the business becomes a roaring success and Ray and Frenchy find themselves fabulously wealthy. Frenchy develops social aspirations butRay wants to go to Florida and the racetrack. The pair find that all that glisters is not necessarily gold.

Fans of Woody Allen will watch anything by or about the master and, above all, anything with him in it. The rest of the populace, and that includes the vast majority of it, are largely indifferent or even have an actual antipathy towards him (or at least his on-screen character). If you belong to latter group forget this film. If you belong to the former group you're in for a treat.

Small Time Crooks is very much a return to the style Woody himself derided in Stardust Memories (1980) as his "early films" (sic) - fast-paced, near slapstick, comedies played for laughs, with his bewildered, chronically non-achieving, but doggedly determined, alter ego at the centre of the action (Allen may have drawn some inspiration from the classic 1959 English comedy Too Many Crooks in which George Cole plays "Fingers' an inept would-be master criminal). 

Whilst it is somewhat disconcerting to see how much he has aged since the days of films such as Take the Money and Run (1969)and Love and Death (1975),the beauty of this film is that Allen has let his sense of the ridiculous roam free. And that, with no disrespect meant to his more serious efforts, is where his genius shines forth and why his fans appreciate him most of all - his articulation of the absurdities of life in comic form. As they say, I haven't laughed that much in years. But then I'm a fan.

Whilst Hugh Grant demonstrates with surety that his acting skill ranges all the way from A to B and back again, Tracy Ullman is perfect as Frenchy, a loud trashy broad from New Jersey. The other strong card is sometime writer-director (notably of Ishtar, 1987) Elaine May moonlighting as Frenchy's simple-minded sister, May. Her character looks initially like being one of Woody's heavy-handed gaffes but she proves to be an eccentric delight. Scriptwise Small Time Crooks is well-plotted and whilst many of the favourite themes are re-visited (particularly Woody's fascination with, on the one hand, petty criminals, on the other, the idle rich), he does not recycle old jokes, as is often the case, even though sometimes coming close to falling flat with trying-too-hard-to-be-funny dialogue.

For a variety of reasons, this probably will not be remembered as one of Woody's best comedies but it is continuously enjoyable and sometimes very funny which is quite remarkable given that the director has been making films unceasingly for over thirty years.




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