Woody Allen slides comfortably back into screwball mode directing himself as an incompetent bank robber dreaming up an absurdly arduous heist in "Small Time Crooks," his first movie in a long time unabashedly about nothing deeper than non-stop laughs.
Allen plays ex-con (and current dishwasher) Ray Winkler, the dubious mastermind behind a plan to rent an empty pizza joint two doors down from a Manhattan bank, then tunnel from the restaurant's basement to the bank's vault and make off with millions.
But Ray and his band of deficient ne'er-do-wells (Michael Rapaport, Jon Lovitz and Tony Darrow) need a front to occupy the shop while they burrow below. So he cajoles his manicurist wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) into opening a cookie shop in the empty storefront -- despite the fact that she thinks Ray's buddies, and their plans, are moronic.
"They never completed kindergarten because they were drafted," she harps, in her funniest ever film performance.
The story of these bozo burglars is divided into halves:
Part one is the inevitably bungled robbery, which starts going wrong from the very first swing of the pickax in the cookie shop basement (Woody hits a water main and floods the place).
Part two takes up two years later, when Ray and Frenchy have become multimillionaires -- by running a giant cookie conglomerate born of Frenchy's surprise knack for sweets while Ray and his half-wit crew were inadvertently breaking into a dress shop on the other side of the cookie store.
Desperate to mix with high society, gaudy Frenchy (call her Francine now, please) -- who has decorated their new Park Avenue digs in animal prints and gold leaf -- hires a snooty art broker (Hugh Grant) to teach her some class. Good luck.
Meanwhile, Ray is miserable. He mopes around in his bright blue blazers, green silk shirts and yellow pants picked out by his wife, drinking Pepsi from wine glasses, eating Cracker Jacks from silver bowls, watching basketball on TV and pining for his glory days as a low-life failure.
Not content just coasting on the obvious gags inherent in the Keystone crooks and bogus bourgeoisie circumstances, as writer, director and actor Allen milks "Small Time Crooks" for every conceivable laugh.
It's ripe with zingers for most of the great cast -- other players include Elaine May as Ullman's lisping, simpleton sister and Elaine Stritch as an uptown dowager with a priceless necklace Ray aches to boost. But what makes this movie Grade A Woody Allen fare is the verbal sparring inspired by Ullman, who is his best female foil since Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall." Frenchy and Ray go at it like welterweight "Honeymooners," bickering with such aplomb that just the way they glare at each other is hilarious. Funniest of all is wimpy Allen feigning an abusive husband schtick:
"Frenchy, I'm gonna get violent!"
"What, with your hernia?"
The first movie Woody Allen ever directed was 1969's "Take the Money and Run," also a slapstick comedy in which he played a would-be bank robber. "Small Time Crooks" is a testament to the fact that after 31 years and 31 movies (37 if you count pictures in which he only acted), he's still got the touch.
Run time: 94 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th May 2000
Distributed by: DreamWorks SKG
Production compaines: DreamWorks SKG
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 67%
Fresh: 66 Rotten: 33
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen as Ray, Carolyn Saxon as Candy Salesperson, Tracey Ullman as Frenchy, Michael Rapaport as Denny, Tony Darrow as Tommy, Jon Lovitz as Benny, Bill Gerber as Cookie Store Customer, Sam Josepher as Real Estate Agent, Diane Bradley as Cookie Store Customer, Lawrence Howard Levy as Dynamite Dealer, Crystal Field as Cookie Store Customer, Cindy Carver as Cookie Store Customer, Laurine Towler as Cookie Store Customer, Olivia Hayman as Cookie Store Customer, Brian Markinson as Cop, Fanda Nikic as Cookie Store Customer, Elaine May as May, Dana Tyler as TV News Reporter, Steve Kroft as Himself, Hugh Grant as David, Ray Garvey as Cookie Store Customer
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