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[whitespace] 'Small Time Crooks'
Crime Time: Woody Allen hatches a big scheme in 'Small Time Crooks.'

Cookie Mobsters

Tracey Ullman puts Woody Allen in his place in 'Small Time Crooks'

By Richard von Busack

WOODY ALLEN'S new film, Small Time Crooks, is indeed small-time, but it's a good time, too. Not since Manhattan Murder Mystery has Allen concentrated so much on his talent to amuse, to make an audience laugh. Compared to his recent films--with the exception of the hard-edged Deconstructing Harry--this is the least patronizing of his post-scandal works. Allen makes himself the butt of the jokes here, and instead of having a woman ape his mannerisms--or, worse, ape the mannerisms of Diane Keaton, as Uma Thurman did in Sweet and Lowdown--he's cast two women who thoroughly put him in his place: Tracey Ullman and Elaine May.

Allen plays Ray Winkler, an ex-con dishwasher. He and some of his confederates--including the boneheaded Michael Rapaport and Jon "Mr. Untrustworthy" Lovitz--plan to rent a defunct pizza parlor and burrow a tunnel into a nearby bank. As a front for the digging, Winkler sets up the store as a cookie shop. See, his wife, Frenchy (Ullman), an ex-exotic dancer, is famous for her cookies. The scheme works, in a way no one anticipated. By the halfway mark, the Winklers are wealthy--but unhappily wealthy, in that old-movie way. They're nouveau riche, with the requisite gaudy taste for plaster statues, leopard prints and gold-veined mirrors (production designer Santo Loquasto has outdone himself). As in old movies, Frenchy yearns for class and finds it with the help of a society hanger-on, an art dealer named David (Hugh Grant). The scene in which Grant explains to a friend that he's actually only involved with Frenchy for the money is the flattest in this brief picture--didn't Allen know that we've seen the same movies that he has?

When Frenchy goes to Europe with the cad, Ray befriends Frenchy's resoundingly dumb sister, May (the comedian, director and writer Elaine May). Not recognizing May--she hasn't been on screen in years--I thought that Allen had made a discovery of a remarkable elder comedian. May's dumbness turns out to be just the inability to restrain herself from saying what she's thinking. Being a woman without yearnings, May is soothing to be around, as a buddy for poker and movie-watching. Everything gets fixed, with musical-comedy neatness.

While Small Time Crooks strains to fill 90 minutes, its pace and jokes have the old-movie sparkle and snap to them. Allen's cinematographer is the wizardly Zhao Fei, who made Sweet and Lowdown look like a much better movie than it was. His cityscapes, apparently caught during a heat wave, bring out the tropical side of a Manhattan summer. The photographer makes even the cheaper sections of New York look as sultry as Key West. Ullman is the best foil Allen's had in years. And the sweetly oblivious May is every bit as good at skewering the pretenses of Allen's persona. The two women cut him down to size, and he's all the better for it.


Small Time Crooks (PG; 95 min.), directed and written by Woody Allen, photographed by Zhao Fei and starring Allen, Tracey Ullman, Jon Lovitz and Elaine May, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and selected theaters.

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From the May 18-24, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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