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Small Time Crooks

Big Time Laughs

By Amy L. Meadows

Staff Writer

Written by Woody Allen

Directed by Woody Allen

Produced by Jean Doumanian and Woody Allen

With Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Elaine May, Tony Darrow

In his newest endeavor, Woody Allen returns to the genre he knows and does best: pure and unadulterated comedy. Sometimes poig3nant, sometimes insightful, but always amusing, Small Time Crooks captures the essence of the classic Woody Allen films.

The movie centers around ex-con Ray Winkler (Allen) and his shifty cohorts, including jail buddy and arsonist Benny (Jon Lovitz), who try to scheme their way into riches. The crooks set up a cookie store as a cover for their offbeat plan: digging a tunnel right underneath a bank. Unwittingly, the store, fronted by Ray’s wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), becomes an immediate success. As a result the swindlers’ plan becomes more complicated. Frenchy is forced to bring her absent-minded cousin into the fray to help her deal with the throngs of customers. Also embroiled in the booming new business is a police officer who soon discovers their plans. The success of the business brings a new breed of swindlers to prey on the small time crooks, and harrowing schemes run amok.

The most powerful element of the film is its comedic force. While attempting to tunnel their way into the bank, the crooks run into a water main, and quintessential Allen slapstick ensues. Although the film is an unconventional version of Horatio Alger’s story, the colorful characters prevent the plot from reverting into a stale rags-to-riches formula. Small Time Crooks is a comedic success.

Ullman not only plays the most dynamic character in the movie, she also is the funniest. As a cynical and sardonic ex-stripper, Ullman has many of the best lines in the movie: her belligerent tongue slashes Ray and his motley crew. Allen’s self-effacing manner and attitude toward the wealthy that come to solicit the support of the wealthy also boosts the funniness of Small Time Crooks.

Elaine May plays Frenchy’s dim-witted cousin, May. Charmingly oblivious to proper social graces, May hikes up her skirt during a dinner party and gives the exact television weather report when making conversation at a society function. “It was really tragic,” May reveals. “My husband Otto -- he was a dyslexic, and the only thing he could read was his own name.” As David, the greedy art dealer who teaches Ullman about the finer elements of life, Hugh Grant is the only one character who does not have an outwardly humorous role. At least it is a departure from his attempts at romantic comedies.

Another wonderful element of Allen’s film is the continually changing situations in which the characters find themselves. At one moment the Winklers are outcasts, the next they are coveted members of society. At one moment Lovitz is an arsonist, the next he is a cookie plant safety manager. At one moment David seems to be a willing tutor, the next he is greedier than any of the other swindlers.

A humorous look at ever-changing luck and fortune, Small Time Crooks is a classic comedy that successfully incorporates both levity and meaning into its characters. The lines are funny, the situations that arise are funnier, and the whole movie is full of big-time laughs.