WOODY'S THROWAWAYS like Manhattan Murder Mystery and Mighty Aphrodite are usually agreeable, forgettable confections. They're slight, enjoyable affairs that don't diminish his reputation, which last year's Sweet and Lowdown helped preserve—being serious, sad, and funny all at once. So ordinarily we're willing to forgive the filler, the one-a-year quota pictures, the water-treading intervals between his more accomplished works.
SMALL TIME CROOKS
written and directed by Woody Allen
with Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, Elaine May, Michael Rapaport, and Jon Lovitz
opens May 19 at area theaters
Not so here. In its conception, characterization, scope, and plotting, Crooks goes beyond slight, farther than small, even past tiny. Its frame of reference is so microscopic and outdated that you wonder why the thing was made. It's a marital comedy—OK so far—that harkens back to the domestic movie and radio serials of Woody's youth that directly anticipate—brace yourself—television. Even though Woody started in that medium in the '50s, he never wrote sitcoms. But that small-screen idiom defines Crooks, as bickering Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) and Ray (Woody) hanker for wealth. He's an inept ex-con; she's a brassy manicurist; together they're Ralph and Alice Kramden, with Noo Yawkese accents anachronistically intact. Instead of "To the moon, Alice," we have "Take a hike," endlessly repeated.
Opportunity seemingly comes their way with Ray's scheme to tunnel into a bank vault beneath the cover of Frenchy's cookie store. Crooks briefly rises to the level of a Three Stooges movie by introducing Ray's equally dim-witted cronies (including Michael Rapaport and Jon Lovitz), but they're gone too soon. Also on the scene is Frenchy's clueless cousin May (Elaine May, of the famous comedy team Nichols and May, who comes off best in this debacle).
THEIR FORTUNE MADE, Ray and Frenchy enlist the help of sophisticated art dealer David (Hugh Grant) to polish their parvenu manners. It's her idea, of course. "We got no class," Frenchy laments. "You're so hoity-toity all of a sudden," Ray retorts. In other words, they're growing apart after 25 years of marriage—she falling for suave David, he for unaffected May. It takes a long time for the short, tedious Crooks to reach even that turning point, bolstered by a few cursory references to Pygmalion and The Heiress, which makes it seem a very Cliff's Notes affair indeed.
Since you know where it's headed, you at least hope Crooks will provide some good gags, but Woody's written his character too dumb to be funny. (Malapropisms are no substitute for neurotic wit.) Meanwhile Grant has nothing to do to but fidget, and Ullman only scores with her snorting laugh and "sar"-for-"saw" line readings. Woody himself displays no vanity as an actor, flaunting his bald spot and wearing shorts to emphasize his scrawny physique. Clearly the guy isn't deluded about his leading man status. He opens the film with his own unflattering close-up and for once romances a woman his own age—instead of Mariel Hemingway or Juliette Lewis or Julia Roberts.
However, none of that serves to excuse what is probably the worst comedy Woody Allen has made in his career. Our dot-com era is full of potential for a comedy of manners dealing with sudden wealth and its consequences, but Woody is a guy who famously composes his scripts in longhand. Crooks feels like an idea retrieved from his 20-year-old wastepaper basket. When presented with the opportunity to trade some hack work for a quick dollar, he obviously decided to take the money and run.