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Scarcely six months after the release of Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen is back again with Small Time Crooks. The new comedy is being distributed by DreamWorks and, for the first time in ages, an Allen film is getting a wide release and a conspicuous publicity campaign. Since Allen lent his voice to DreamWorks’ animated hit Antz (a movie that no doubt grossed more than the director’s entire 90′s repertoire put together), this development could be seen as some form of payback. More likely, though, the studio believes it may have a crowd-pleaser on its hands – a throwback to Allen’s much-mourned "early, funny movies" (as the director himself memorialized them in 1980′s Stardust Memories).
In truth, Small Time Crooks is not dissimilar in tone from such recent fare as Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You (though it generates more laughter and goodwill than either of those pleasantly forgettable outings). Allen stars as ex-con Ray Winkler, currently working as a dishwasher and looking to make a big score. His scheme involves taking over the lease of a pizza joint two doors down from a bank, then tunneling into the bank’s safe and making off with the dough. His wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) is skeptical of the plan, but eventually agrees to act as a front, converting the pizza place into a cookie stand.
Ray enlists some old cronies to assist him in the heist, a trio of losers who appear to have gotten their criminal training from Larry, Moe and Curly. Slapstick ensues as the small time crooks burst a water main while attempting to drill the tunnel entrance, then manage to dig in the wrong direction and end up in a clothing store. But even as the bank job is falling apart, the cookie business is thriving (a similar turn of events transpired in last year’s Albert Brooks movie, The Muse). Within a year, Sunset Cookies is a booming franchise and Ray has finally struck it rich. At this point, the story shifts from working class Brooklyn to Woody’s usual Upper West Side milieu, and a Pygmalion scenario is put into play, with oily lothario Hugh Grant giving Frenchy life lessons in culture and art appreciation while scheming to get his hands on her fortune.
While Small Time Crooks is certainly enjoyable enough to merit a recommendation, any notions of a full-blown return to the zaniness of Sleeper or Take the Money and Run can be dismissed as wishful thinking. Allen is too careful a filmmaker now to ever recapture the anarchy and artless exuberance of his early work, and the time has long past for audiences and critics to keep hoping for it. What we might hope for, though, is some respite from the increasingly hermetic thinness of Allen’s cinematic vision. For starters, maybe it’s finally time to ditch the opening credit sequences with the little white typeface against the black background, accompanied by scratchy recordings of jazzy standards like "With Plenty of Money and You." It’s a small, nitpicky matter, but it’s one that’s indicative of Allen’s overall approach in recent years – the airtight overfamiliarity of his movie world.
There’s some attempt to shake that world up here. From the opening shot of Allen reading the Daily News, wearing a baggy pair of denim shorts, it’s clear this is not yet another in his recent string of misunderstood artist characters. It’s fun to see Woody playing dumb again – at one point he tells Grant that he always wanted to learn how to spell "Connecticut" – and his "dem, dese, and dose" articulation is reminiscent of his similarly small-time Broadway Danny Rose incarnation. His gang of thieves is likewise entertainingly dense; if anything, Jon Lovitz and Michael Rapaport are underused as Allen’s dumb and dumber cohorts. The director’s association of dimwittedness with lower economic status is cause for some discomfort, however, and adds to the retro feeling of the whole project. It’s as if Allen scripted Small Time Crooks during a Honeymooners marathon (there’s even an homage to Jackie Gleason’s "You’re the greatest" tagline, along with some good old-fashioned domestic violence humor). When the 1958 rock instrumental "Tequila" appears on the soundtrack at one point, it’s almost as shocking as if Allen had dropped in some gangsta rap – that’s how constrictive his worldview has become.
None of this should detract overly from anyone’s enjoyment of Small Time Crooks; it certainly has its share of laugh-out-loud moments. But coming from a filmmaker responsible for at least a half-dozen flat-out great movies, it can’t help but leave a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. It’s a snack compared to the meals that are Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except for the fact that Allen has delivered virtually nothing but snacks for the past decade. A case could be made for Husbands and Wives (though not by me), and Deconstructing Harry was a welcome foray into grittier territory, but these are exceptions. Small Time Crooks is fun while it lasts, but in the end it’s as full of empty calories as one of Frenchy’s cookies.