From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 2000). — J.R.
Small Time Crooks
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Tony Darrow, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, George Grizzard, and Elaine Stritch.
Small Time Crooks is Woody Allen’s 29th feature in 31 years. I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to say that all the major developments in his work to date took place during the period around Love and Death (1975) and Annie Hall (1977), when he transformed himself from a gagman with a clunky mise en scene into a fairly graceful filmmaker, and the period around Husbands and Wives (1992), when he bravely discarded grace and went on a brief adventure. It led to the relaxed candor of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and the sour gallows humor of Bullets Over Broadway (1994), before collapsing into the banality and facility of Mighty Aphrodite (1995), with its Whore With a Heart of Gold.
September (1987) was an embarrassment, and other low points, the moments when Allen’s energy and invention flagged the most, include A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Shadows and Fog (1992), and Celebrity (1998). Small Time Crooks never attains the diffidence of the last three, but at times it comes awfully close. The way exposition is handled says a lot about a storyteller, and the dialogue signaling that a cynical and snooty art dealer (Hugh Grant) intends to exploit the nouveau riche heroine (Tracey Ullman) is just about as perfunctory as movie storytelling gets. It’s not only lazy, it reduces human possibility and complexity to the task of carrying us from point A to point B in a script; Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless is more nuanced. Allen’s confidence that viewers will swallow this reveals a frightening contempt — an attitude that was already evident, albeit more explicitly, in Stardust Memories (1980).
The only way to excuse this kind of characterization is to conclude that Allen is trying less to deal with life than to follow movie conventions. This preference is the most significant limitation of Allen’s work as a whole, though it’s also one of the deepest sources of his popularity. It even helps explain why he seldom changes as an artist and why the public that supports him doesn’t want him to change. Whether this inflexibility is the consequence of a profound conservatism or of arrested development, it betrays the attitude that the world is incapable of undergoing improvement or any other significant alteration.
It’s almost unthinkable these days that Allen could make a movie that wasn’t modeled directly or indirectly on a European art-house feature of his youth. This usually means a feature by Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini, but he’s nearly exhausted the oeuvres of both filmmakers. (In his more fertile periods, he was capable of expanding his list of models, basing the use of “witnesses” in his 1983 Zelig on Warren Beatty’s 1981 Reds and making the starting point for his 1987 Radio Days a relatively late Fellini, the 1974 Amarcord.) The initial inspiration for Small Time Crooks was Mario Monicelli’s hilarious Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), itself a parody of popular heist movies of the 50s such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Rififi (1955): in it a bunch of small-time incompetents try to pull off a robbery by digging a tunnel and encounter one messy problem after another, including hitting a water main. It’s true that in his first feature as a director, Take the Money and Run, Allen played an incompetent bank robber, but most of the details in Small Time Crooks point to Monicelli.
Big Deal on Madonna Street carries us through the first part of Small Time Crooks, during which ex-con Ray Winkler (Allen) joins three other New York incompetents (Tony Darrow, Michael Rapaport, and Jon Lovitz) who want to knock off a neighborhood bank. The plan is to rent the former pizzeria next door and drill the tunnel from there. Ray’s manicurist wife, Frenchy (Ullman), becomes part of the plan when she’s enlisted to sell her cookies as a front, and her dim-witted cousin May (Elaine May) is brought in to help sell the cookies.
After the heist flops and the cookie store becomes a smash success, Big Deal on Madonna Street is discarded. The action moves forward a year, and Allen starts working without a European model (if the Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman is right, Allen’s now using an American model, Born Yesterday). The remainder of the movie concentrates on how Ray and Frenchy cope with their newfound wealth. She goes lusting after culture (and Hugh Grant); he becomes bored. After they split up, she finds herself bankrupted by crooked accountants, and he decides to steal a necklace at a party with the help of May.
Apart from the comic gifts of Elaine May — which Allen should be credited for exploiting, even if he gives her a less fully rounded character than she deserves — the second part of Small Time Crooks isn’t nearly as funny as the first. Allen can’t seem to find enough sense of play in his material, perhaps because he’s too close to the class-bound sources of his humor. Someone with an edgier comic imagination and a willingness to take risks might have taken advantage of this situation, but Allen is unable or reluctant to exploit such opportunities — which is part of what makes him incapable of growing.
Perhaps the strongest emotions expressed in Allen’s work as a whole are responses to his working-class background: fear, hatred, and disgust. Ultimately they can be seen in his preference for movies over life, expressed more in terms of other movies than in allusions to life experiences — The Purple Rose of Cairo is a classic illustration. So the view of poverty we get in Small Time Crooks has little to do with the Brooklyn of Allen Stewart Konigsberg (aka Woody) and much to do with Warner Brothers movies about gangsters — underlined by a clip from White Heat seen on TV–as well as Big Deal on Madonna Street.
This mind-set sees the role of art and culture in general and of movies in particular not as providing an understanding of life but as providing an escape from it. In interviews Allen is generally quite up-front about his bias, making it clear that his idea of art corresponds precisely to the idea of what mindless entertainment in American culture is supposed to be. It’s a self-annihilating dream, but it’s often held up as the model for what everyone allegedly wants at the movies.
This suggests that Star Wars would provide Allen with a better model than Wild Strawberries, and here’s where the issue of arrested development comes up. Allen considers himself a philistine and an artist, but because he’s a conformist, he doesn’t have the slightest interest in contesting the equation of culture with money or art with gentility that’s so quintessentially American. To overstate the case, what Allen really seems to like about Wild Strawberries isn’t so much what Bergman does with sound and image or what he has to say about life but the fact that they served espresso in the lobby of the theater where he first saw it. More precisely, what he likes about Bergman’s views of life and filmmaking are inseparable from notions about class — which are what really interest him.
Allen’s movies specialize in contemplating the notion that money can somehow remove vulgarity or produce gentility. Frenchy is a typical protagonist — and arguably a closer soul mate for Allen than Ray, the character he plays. She aspires to the “finer” things in life but can’t attain them because she remains “unspeakably vulgar.” When Ray first met her, we’re told, she was known as “Frenchy Fox, the topless wonder.” When she and Ray get rich she decides to serve snails at a dinner party. “A snail leaves a trail of scum when it walks,” Ray complains. She replies, “Not in France.” Excluded from this overall debate is any developed sense that French truck drivers as well as corporate executives enjoy snails (because they’re culturally conditioned to do so) and that feelings of unworthiness or estrangement tied to class are culturally produced and can therefore be overcome or at least superseded by other emotions.
Allen’s movies aren’t interested in such possibilities, and the comforts they do dispense derive in part from this exclusion. Small Time Crooks may conclude quite conventionally that money can’t buy you everything, but most of it flirts even more conventionally with the opposite premise.