[Written for Film.com]
“My husband Otto was dyslexic,” recalls Elaine May’s sweet but ditzy character, May, in Woody Allen’s new film. “The only word he could read correctly was his own name.”
Ah, bliss. The return of an Allen trademark: a layered-in, conceptual one-liner counterpointing the hard narrative thrust of a scene. In this case, a scene in which both May and Allen’s characters are exercised about some criminal plans. The tossed-off gag gives the moment a shot more oxygen as only Allen can do, delighting in May’s surreal urgency unrelated to the crisis at hand.
This is vintage Allen, his powers intact after a string of increasingly cranky, creaky films in the last few years. If Small-Time Crooks isn’t among his most inspired works, it’s certainly a solid romantic farce resuscitating some of Allen’s oldest themes: the difficulty of maintaining faith in people, the humiliations and elusive rewards of marriage, the durability of love after every possible assault on it.
Allen plays a failed thief and dishwasher named Ray Winkler, a scrawny version of Ralph Kramden who badgers his brassy, cynical wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) into investing in a harebrained scheme to rob a bank by tunneling to it from a nearby cookie shop. Despite their relentless squabbling, Ray is driven by a longtime desire to give Frenchy a better life, and he enlists three equally hapless cohorts (wonderful support from Michael Rapaport, Jon Lovitz, and Tony Darrow) to drill, dig, and burrow their way beneath the street toward a waiting fortune.
So brisk and expertly entertaining is this initial 30 minutes of near-slapstick — a scene involving a first attempt at drilling through a wall is among the funniest of Allen’s career — that when the first act abruptly ends it feels like a major disappointment. However, Small Time Crooks isn’t about one pathetic heist attempt but a series of them, at every level of society and between all kinds of people.
Fate intervenes when Frenchy’s cookies, which were meant only to be a front for the illicit activity in the basement, prove so popular that the store becomes a Manhattan hot spot. Ray and Frenchy start a franchise and become fabulously wealthy, leading to deep divisions between them about what they want in life. Ray yearns for the simplicity of poker games and finds solace in May’s middlebrow company, while Frenchy craves aristocratic approval and asks a handsome art dealer, David (Hugh Grant), to become her Henry Higgins, schooling her in life’s finer things.
But beneath David’s stammering charm is a crocodile planning to bilk Frenchy out of a fortune. It’s part of an overall pattern of cons and betrayals in this story that finds everyone boosting valuables from one another — not just cash but trust and dreams. If Small Time Crooks has anything in common with Allen’s recent Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, and Sweet and Lowdown, it’s his portrayal of love as a carnivorous exercise in survival. The difference here is that Woody seems to have found his way back to a point beyond that, to the notion of love without illusions and the freedom it brings.