Rated PG - Running Time: 1:34 - Released 5/19/00

One wonders if Brooklyn-born Allan Konigsberg would have been such a smash success if he had used his original name. But Woody Allen's success as a filmmaker is now a matter of record regardless of what moniker he uses. His long list of films dating from the late '60s represents one of the most impressive resumés for a writer/director in the latter 20th century. Small Time Crooks is classic Woody.

In this film, Allen casts himself against type as an ex-criminal who spent 2 years in the joint for a botched armed robbery ("We were all wearing Ronald Reagan masks," he explains. "It was too confusing.") However, even at his most criminal moments, Ray Winkler is about as un-tough as they come. Constantly bickering, but in a loving way, with his wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), he works as a dish washer and lives a modest life in a New York apartment. But he remembers his safe-cracking days with fondness, and has recently decided to give it one more try. In the first scene, he is seen scoping out a bank, planning the perfect crime: he and his intelligence-challenged friends, Denny (Michael Rapaport), Tommy (Tony Darrow), and Benny (Jon Lovitz), will sign a lease for a recently vacated pizzeria and tunnel underground to the bank, two doors down. Frenchy will serve as a front, running a gourmet cookie shop upstairs while the guys go for the real payoff through the basement.

As it turns out, the cookie business goes far better than the tunneling, and soon the bank job is discarded. With the help of Frenchy's dim-witted cousin May (Elaine May) and a cop-turned marketing manager (Brian Markinson), the business explodes to a national corporation overnight, making all the above parties wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. But as Ray and Frenchy become the quintessential nouveau riche, drinking Pepsi out of gold-rimmed goblets, their lack of refinement becomes obvious to all their high-class friends. Desiring to broaden her horizons, Frenchy asks art dealer David (Hugh Grant) to educate her on the finer things of life. Ray, on the other hand, misses the old days, constantly pining for a good cheeseburger and a simple day at the beach. And maybe a bank job or two.

As usual in Allen's films, there is a dynamic in the dialogue that is both real and funny at the same time. Ullman is priceless as the ex-stripper/cookie mogul, and her interaction with Woody is electric. Their taste in clothes and the all-leopard décor in their opulent apartment is excruciating; Frenchy's decoration includes an original Louis XIV chest converted into a TV cabinet and an orchestra-quality harp placed in the living room for its "visual sweep." Grant plays his usual stock character of the debonair Englishman, but at least Allen knows he can't do anything else and doesn't ask him to. Elaine May is suitably thick as Frenchy's cousin, and all Ray's cronies are amusingly out of place in their executive jobs at the multi-million-dollar Sunset Farms cookie franchise.

Allen supplies several of his regular trademarks, such as his favorite big band/swing music (Woody actually plays clarinet every week in a prestigious New York club orchestra) and the old-fashioned silent movie-style titles. His whiny, halting delivery is as engaging as ever, and the ridiculous situations Ray and his pals find themselves in, especially early in the film, look like something out of Sleeper or Casino Royale. Small Time Crooks is not as deep as Radio Days nor as personal as Annie Hall or Hannah And Her Sisters, but it provides a nice diversion for established Allen fans and for those trying him out for the first time. ****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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