Small Time Crooks

Small Time Crooks (PG)

WHEN a band of half-baked cons decide to burrow their way through the cellar of an empty shop into the bank next door, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that the results will not be good.

And with Woody Allen in control, it’s a goner from the outset.

Such is the atmosphere in Small Time Crooks, Allen’s latest feature-length sketch and a film which, as is his trademark, uses an ensemble cast to breathe life into moments of inspired lunacy and prolonged patches of ennui.

In his newest offering as writer/director, Allen plays ray Winkler, a small-time thief who’s given up his attempts to go straight. As Ray tells wife Frenchy (Tracy Ullman): “I tried to go legit. I couldn’t make a go of the pet cemetery.”

Small Time Crooks is packed with such one-liners, many delivered in Allen’s delicious deadpan style. Yet this is, like the soccer cliche, a film of two halves, with the second palpably failing to live up to the promise of the first.

In truth, the genius of Small Time Crooks can be witnessed during the first 20 minutes, in which Ray and his ragtag band of lame desperadoes – including Denny (Michael Rapaport) and Jon Lovitz as insurance arsonist Benny (“I burn everything. That’s how I sent two kids through college”) – strive to locate the mother lode via their tunnel.

With Allen at his Stan Laurel best, this is comedy from the pages of the Keystone Kops, Keaton and  Chaplin – observational humour with a minimum of fuss and drama.

Then the plot twists, with Frenchy becoming an overnight millionaire through the cookies she sells in the shop as a front for Ray’s underground antics. As Ray and Frenchy transform into nouveau riche types, so the plot shifts gears towards a comedy of manners which resembles vintage Coward.

The one-liners still come thick and fast – “Rembrandt, Picasso, Michaelangelo – ya know, the boys,” says Frenchy as she regales upper-crust New York WASPs with stories of her favourite painters – but the action dilutes the comedy.

As in his previous films, Allen has attracted a host of familiar faces to provide support, not least Hugh Grant, who portrays what go-getting Americans apparently see in the English – class, charm, sophistication – while openly expressing disdain for these appalling creatures and their new money.

Ullman, adopting a flawless New York accent, shines in a protracted sequence with Grant. Having demanded a crash course in upper-class life, she memorises the dictionary and peppers her conversations with malapropisms. It doesn’t help that she only gets to ‘B’.

Both a morality tale and a quasi-Shakespearian drama – Allen and Ullman resemble the clowns in Richard II, who wear the finery of aristocrats without any inkling of the decorum which accompanies it – Small Time Crooks works on the basis that you can’t escape your class.

Nevertheless, as an entry in the Allen canon, this is decidedly minor league – as if it takes bits from past classics like Take the Money and Run without knowing how to piece the jigsaw together.

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