For the better part of a decade post-1992’s Husbands and Wives Woody Allen has made a series of disappointing, mostly unfunny, and at-times offensive films. He’s abandoned both the finely-observed relationship comedies (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and the dark Crimes and Misdemeanors) and the sharp slapstick fantasies (Sleeper, Love and Death, The Purple Rose of Cairo) with which his name had early become synonymous. Instead, he’s made high-concept flicks with low results (Mighty Aphrodite, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity), bland period pics (Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet and Lowdown), and half-hearted forays into genre films (the mystery Manhattan Murder Mystery and the musical Everyone Says I Love You), all without a classic in the bunch. Just watch the scene early in Deconstructing Harry when Allen calls Judy Davis, his most talented and faithful actress throughout the ’90s, a “meshuga cunt,” or later in the same film, when he goes on a road trip with the only black character to appear in one of his films a hot-pink-hot-pants-wearing whore named Cookie, to see the filmmaker at his nadir.
Actually, during the mid-late ’90s, all the women in Allen’s movies seemed to be nitwits, malicious bitches, or kind-hearted prostitutes and of men were petty fools across the board. The freaks who populate Allen’s Stardust Memories, considered by many to be his worst film, look sympathetic by comparison. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Allen’s best work has always relied on his involvement with his leading lady and muse, whether Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow; and since his breakup with Farrow, his work has suffered.
Small Time Crooks, finally, brings Allen back to form, even though he sports new (but still out-of-fashion) frames on his glasses. In terms of Allen’s career, Small Time Crooks most evokes 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose it’s a caper film with a surprisingly genuine heart. A pair of no-class New Jerseyites, displaced on the Upper West Side, Ray (Allen) and Frenchy (Tracey Ullman, who, presumably, Allen has not gotten involved with but who is such a force that she since to have overcome the post-Farrow jinx) have been married for 25 years and feel the rut they’ve fallen into. Ray recently spent two years in lock-down (it’s absurd to imagine Allen surviving even an hour of hard time, but that’s comedy) and has sniffed out his latest heist: rent a pizza parlor two doors down from a bank, tunnel through the basement and lift $2 million. Ray recruits his nitwit friends, and Frenchy sells cookies in the old pizza parlor space as a cover. None of the lugs who work the heist know the first thing about engineering or reading a map, so the bank job doesn’t exactly work out (the first day of drilling provides Allen’s best sight gag in years), but the cookie business booms with lines down the block for a taste of cherry cinnamon, chicken chip, or tuna mint. A year later, Frenchy’s cookies have spawned numerous franchises and the whole gang is nouveau riche.
Apart from being wholly incompetent as crooks, the defining characteristic for Ray, Frenchy, her cousin May (Elaine May, making the most of a part that calls for a lisp), and his co-conspirators (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, and Jon Lovitz) is their absolute stupidity. The IQ insults fly during the film’s early moments, as in this exchange between Ray and his buddy from the clink: “Remember what they used to call me in the joint?” Ray asks. “The brain?” “The brain,” Ray reiterates. “That was sarcastic,” his buddy replies. Although May gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop in the intellect department, the smartest member of the set, refreshingly for a Woody Allen film, is a woman Frenchy. At times, she even seems too smart (as when she makes a sideways reference to Of Mice and Men) to stick around with a loser like Ray. “I’ll charm her,” Ray says, hatching his plot to get the pizza storefront from a tenant who beat him to the rental office. “What are you going to use for charm?” Frenchy retorts.
She’s an irrepressible spirit determined to get classed up once the money starts rollin’ in. “I want to be as far away from Frenchy the Topless Crooner as I can be,” she tells Ray. To this end, Frenchy enlists her own personal Henry Higgins, an art dealer named David (Hugh Grant, just now making his Woody Allen film debut), who takes her to galleries and the opera. On her own time, she memorizes the dictionary to improve her vocabulary. But despite some improvement in these areas, she remains mostly clueless and her tastes remain tartish she trades her iridescent green lycra pants for Miami Beach-style pants-suits and her tiger stripe bedclothes explode into an animal-motif apartment that looks like something the Mia Farrow character in Danny Rose would have decorated.
Even though Allen’s recent films have generated accolades and awards for his actresses, they have largely been demeaning roles a Norma Desmondish has-been (Dianne Weist in Bullets over Broadway), a moronic whore (Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite), a simpleton mute (Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown), and the list goes on. Frenchy stands out as the first complex, faulty yet ambitious, female character Allen has written in several years, and Tracey Ullman is exactly the actress to pull off the role. Ullman, of course, is a skilled comedian equipped to rattle off jabs while making Frenchy tacky enough to be a lovable innocent. When Frenchy overhears society folks dishing about her bad taste, Ullman is also convincingly hurt and the matter of class difference stops being simply a running joke at Frenchy’s expense and becomes, through her heartbreaking epiphany, the central issue of the film.
Since Annie Hall, Allen’s movies have typically concerned an affluent class of Manhattanites who discuss Bergman films and Joyce novels (in spite of Allen’s occasional snippy remarks about intellectuals e.g., about Diane Keaton in Manhattan or Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives). In Interiors and Everyone Says …, the characters are beyond affluent they’re rich. Rarely has Allen made films with working class protagonists, and never has he examined the intersection of classes. Here, Frenchy looks like she’s crashing her own party; she masquerades as what she wants to be, a socialite, and is indulged by society members simply because she has the cold hard cash. It’s a sad but true moment when Frenchy realizes she does not pass for what she dreams of being, and her outsider status is so painful that she might as well be back in a middle school cafeteria being laughed away from the cool kids’ table.
Allen’s best work achieved greatness by being more than funny by revealing or capturing something more substantive about human relationships. With Small Time Crooks, the substance comes from the unexpected satire of class differences that gets at something truer than a mere fish-out-of-water story. As in the mantra Alan Alda character recites in Crimes and Misdemeanors, “If it bends it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.” Small Time Crooks bends and breaks, just as it should.