With Small Time Crooks this week I’m entering a new phase in Woody Allen’s career which is usually described as his low-point. The four films he made for Dreamworks have been handily compiled into a DVD box set which is titled, some might say controversially, ‘The Woody Allen Comedy Collection’. Working with Dreamworks meant wider releases for Woody, and presumably all he had to do was voice the lead role in Antz, the studio’s ersatz A Bug’s Life. Are these four films unfairly maligned? I’m keen to find out.
In the first film, the eponymous small time crooks are the husband and wife team of Ray and Frenchie (Woody Allen and Tracey Ullman). Ray was never a successful criminal (he is shocked to find out his prison nickname of ‘The Brain’ was sarcastic) but he has a new plan to strike it rich that will enable he and Frenchie to retire. As the plan involves tunnelling into a bank vault, Ray and his dimwitted crew need a front, which is where Frenchie comes in by opening a cookie shop along with her even more dimwitted cousin, May (Elaine May).
Now all the elements are in place for a classic farce… when Woody the screenwriter pulls a switch. It turns out the cookies are a hit, instantly catapulting Ray and Frenchie into a life among the super-rich. The remainder of the film (a good two thirds) is what Woody has described as a ‘careful what you wish for’ scenario. Ray becomes bored and resentful of his new trappings of wealth, while Frenchie is so desperate to better herself that she doesn’t suspect her cultural tutor, David (Hugh Grant), to be a big time crook at heart and only interested in her money.
I recall seeing Small Time Crooks on its release in a packed cinema (the same cinema I saw Magic In The Moonlight this weekend) and I clearly remember it getting big laughs throughout. Woody is in his low-life mould of Broadway Danny Rose, even more endearingly unintelligent, but it’s the wisecracking of Tracy Ullman and the decidedly un-wise Elaine May who steal the show. Jon Lovitz is his usual hilarious self as the career arsonist, but as with the rest of the gang he mostly disappears after the major plot shift.
Watching it again this week I really enjoyed the first act, but after the plot twist the laughs seemed a little laboured, perhaps because not a lot happens beyond simple fish-out-of-water comedy. In a recent book of interviews with Eric Lax, Woody Allen defends his Dreamworks run of pictures as just wanting to make funny films. It’s true that Small Time Crooks is a mostly funny film with some great one-liners and memorable performances, but it can’t be ranked with his greatest comedies, and nor does it have the heart and soul of Broadway Danny Rose.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare Small Time Crooks to other Woody Allen movies. Although when put up against what came next, it’s hilarious.
Next week: The Curse of the Jade Scorpion