Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks: Art Disguised As A Light Evening at the Movies

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans. That old saw is as close as Small Time Crooks gets to an explicit message; that, and "overnight success can hurt a marriage." Yet despite the absence of explicitly stated Big Themes, Woody Allen's latest film?about an attempt by an ex-con and his ex-stripper wife to rob a bank while pretending to operate a cookie store next door?is a lot yeastier and more rewarding than its reviews might suggest. It's his funniest movie since Bullets over Broadway and his most emotionally direct and dramatically coherent since Husbands and Wives.

    I'm not surprised that critics have mostly failed to appreciate the sheer craft of Small Time Crooks, preferring instead to praise the script's bumper crop of tasty one-liners and slapstick situations?a trifle. Here's how things work in this country: If you're an artist, and march in carrying your Big Ideas across your shoulders like a peasant farmer bearing potato sacks, the audience gives you points for being an artist, even if the work is didactic and only intermittently satisfying. On the other hand, if the ideas are embedded in a good story and articulated through funny dialogue spoken by finely crafted comic characters who don't give big speeches every 10 minutes and mope around the rest of the time wondering if God exists, the film is dismissed as a mere diversion. That's why American Beauty, The Green Mile and The Insider got best-picture Oscar nominations last year, and Three Kings, The Limey, Being John Malkovich and Toy Story 2 didn't. Filmmakers who are stealthy about articulating themes and ideas get written off as entertainers.

    I can understand why Small Time Crooks is being written off that way. It's stealth art disguised as a fine light evening at the movies, and if you want to treat is as the latter rather than the former, you won't feel you've missed anything. Allen stars as Ray, an ex-crook who comes up with a crazy plan to make a lot of money fast: he and a couple of buddies (Michael Rapaport and Tony Darrow) will kick in some cash and buy a store next door to a bank, and while Ray's wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) is upstairs selling cookies in a bakery, the boys will be downstairs digging a tunnel to the bank vault. Of course it's not as simple as it sounds. First Ray has to take the property away from a surprised lessor; fortunately, the lessor is an arsonist (Jon Lovitz) who planned to burn the joint down for the insurance money ("That's how I put two kids through college," he tells Ray), and it's not hard to convince him to come on board. Then something delightful happens?and if you don't know anything about Small Time Crooks and don't want to know, now would be a good time to check out of this review. Frenchy's amazingly tasty cookies start to sell, quickly becoming so popular that New Yorkers are waiting on line for hours to get them and Frenchy has to put a sign outside establishing a limit of three cookies per person. (She runs the shop herself, and there's only so much that one woman can bake.)

    While Ray and his criminal idiot pals are downstairs going at the wall with jackhammers, bursting water mains and putting their miners' helmets on backwards so they'll look cooler, the wife is upstairs building a lucrative business on sheer talent. And a film that initially looks like it's going to be another heist comedy about bumbling dreamers?like Big Deal on Madonna Street or Palookaville?turns, abruptly and delightfully, into a meditation on overnight success. Early in the film, Darrow's character jokingly warns Ray that if they successfully raid the bank vault, they'll have to be careful not to let greed undo them like the characters in that Humphrey Bogart movie. (Ray helpfully identifies it for him: Treasure Island.)

    Money does ruin everything, but not in the way you'd expect. Frenchy wants to be cultured, so she sinks a few of the millions she's made on franchising the cookie shop into the purchase of very expensive but hilariously mismatched bits of furniture, art and decoration. (She puts a harp in the living room of their opulent town house because she "likes the sweep of it.")

    This marriage is headed for trouble. Ray's the kind of guy who wants to move to Miami so he can visit the dog track every day, and he would rather eat cheeseburgers than fine French cuisine. He thinks Frenchy is just a social climber putting on airs. Well, she is, but underneath the pretension is a genuine, aching desire to improve herself?to become educated, classy and respectable. She hires a down-on-his-luck art dealer named David (Hugh Grant, playing a Cary Grant role exceptionally well) to be her Henry Higgins, and he hatches a plan to woo and marry her to gain access to her fortune. Meanwhile, the increasingly disenchanted Ray? Well, hell, I'm not going to tell you. I've said too much already. One of the most wonderful things about Small Time Crooks is how fast it moves and how many things happen; it changes into a different movie every 20 minutes or so, and the characters keep surprising you, too, revealing secret talents and longings you never guessed they'd have. I can't remember the last Allen movie that demonstrated real affection for each major character, even the disingenuous and scheming ones. The stupidest character of all is the most empathetically drawn: Frenchy's cousin May, brilliantly played by Elaine May. Her denseness verges on the cosmically profound. Some of the things she says are so dumb they almost seem meaningful, like when she tells Ray that an attractive older man at a party "said I remind him of his wife, who's dead. I assumed he meant while she was alive.")

    Though outwardly less creatively ambitious than Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters or Deconstructing Harry or almost any recent Woody Allen movie, Small Time Crooks provides further evidence of Allen's continuing improvement as a filmmaker. His script is a marvel of construction: scenes go on exactly as long as they should and not a moment longer; the seeds of future twists and grace notes get planted early and flower precisely when they're most needed. And like all great comics, he knows exactly when to get out?always on a funny and surprising note of new information that leaves you wondering what on Earth could possibly happen next. (Watch how he gets out of the heist plot and into the success-can-spoil-a-marriage part of the story. He does it with a single word and a fadeout. That's real storytelling.) Allen keeps ending sections of the movie in ways that suggest there's no way he could possibly keep going, yet somehow he does, and the place he goes turns out to be just as engaging as the place he was at before. You could say it's like he was making it up as he went along, but that would betray a profound misunderstanding of storytelling. It takes a lot of planning to make a film that seems this relaxed and playful.

    Beneath the filmmaking polish is a serious story about a loving marriage that must withstand extraordinary pressure and emerge changed but intact. That's no easy task, and Allen doesn't pretend it's easy. It doesn't take much imaginative stretching to picture Ray or Frenchy apart from each other, especially in the latter stages of the film when Ray has realized, for the first time, exactly who he is and Frenchy has realized that she always wanted to be somebody else. What we know about Allen's sordid and bizarre personal life doesn't intrude here because the film envisions such a convincing marriage of... I was about to say "equals," but that would imply heroic types, or sophisticated screwball characters, or at least a couple of folks who know Henry James wasn't a trumpeter.

    All of Allen's movies have a strong autobiographical component?he plays more fiction/reality games than any major American artist except Philip Roth, to whom he paid tribute in Deconstructing Harry?and the autobiographical impulse is present here, too. It's just buried under jokes so that you don't notice it right away. Allen is a rich and influential man, but he's never quite shaken off the feeling that he's out of his element: a skinny, bespectacled Jewish kid from Brooklyn who still can't believe that he's hobnobbing with the hoity-toity, and that he has, point of fact, become the hoity-toity. ("Can you change the music please," he asks Frenchy, who's taken to blasting classical at parties. "I feel like I should be wearing a wig.")

    There's a strong undercurrent of alienation and unease in Small Time Crooks that makes it resonate much more strongly than even fans might expect. It's a film by somebody who understands what drives people and who knows what it's like to live in one world and feel you belong somewhere else. As Frenchy says, "Class is something you can't fake and you can't buy." She puts it even better later, telling Ray, who hates a painting she just bought, "You wouldn't know a masterpiece if it bit you on the ass."

    Framed Two worlds, one snooze: Passion of Mind, the latest effort from French filmmaker Alain Berliner (Ma Vie en Rose), is a weird compromise between a high-toned Hollywood chick flick and a middlebrow European art movie. Demi Moore plays a woman living two lives simultaneously?a single, successful book editor in New York and a widowed mother of two daughters living in a lovely home in rural France. In each life, she feels only partly fulfilled, and she's so involved in each life that she can't be sure if she's actually living two lives or dreaming about one while living the other. Not a bad concept, and the ending is a knockout; too bad you have to go through so much star-pandering bull to get to it. Both lives are casually opulent in the way that movie stars' lives are casually opulent?fabulous loft and fabulous boyfriend in New York, fabulous house and another fabulous boyfriend in France?and Moore gives one of her typically hard, opaque performances. Why is this woman still considered a major star? She works best when she's cast as a slightly cartoonish character?the female Navy SEAL in G.I. Jane, the buxom hellcat maneater in Disclosure. When she tries to play a real woman, she can't pull it off. Two women? Forget about it.