PLAY IT AGAIN, WOODY
By SETH BLOOM
"There's only two things that I can really play," Woody Allen has said, "I can play an intellectual and I can play a lowlife." In his latest film, "Small Time Crooks," Allen has definitely decided to go slumming. He plays a ne'er-do-well ex-con, Ray Winkler, who is a frustrated, aging dishwasher seeking one big score so that he can retire to Florida to the dog track and eat stone crabs to his heart's content.
Ray's return to the world of petty thieves and con artists parallels Allen's own return to his long-abandoned roots in slapstick comedy and farce -- to the world of "Take the Money and Run," "Bananas," and his other classic films of the 1960s and early '70s. Many of Allen's recent releases tell artsy, ambitious (and often pretentious) stories. With "Small Time Crooks," Allen aims for far simpler humor.
The film's initial premise is that Ray has a big scheme to get rich quick. The scheme requires him to rent a vacant pizza shop two doors down from a bank, and simply tunnel from the store's basement into the bank's vault. Meanwhile Ray's hapless wife Frenchy (played by Tracey Ullman) will keep suspicion at bay by starting a cookie store to replace the pizzeria. What could be easier?
In a predictable ironic twist, Frenchy becomes a super-rich cookie diva as her store prospers and then spins off franchises -- while Ray's gang can't even tunnel straight. They burst a water main, get lost underground, and mistakenly dig their way into a dress shop.
For Ray and Frenchy, money changes everything -- as Allen shows in the second half of the film, by fast-forwarding to the couple, a year later, in their garishly decorated apartment on Manhattan's upper East Side. While Ray is content to drink cold beers, play poker, and watch the new big screen TV, Frenchy decides that they need to get culture.
In one hilarious scene, the nouveau riche Ray and Frenchy host a farcical dinner party for the pretentious upper crust of Manhattan society. And Frenchy befriends an oily but charming art dealer (played by Hugh Grant, perfectly cast), who agrees to help educate her in the ways of high culture and high society. Meanwhile, Ray grows increasingly miserable in his new life as a member of the idle rich and increasingly estranged from Frenchy.
While Grant and Ullman re-enact "My Fair Lady," Allen and Ullman re-enact "The Honeymooners." Allen plays a hen-pecked Ralph Kramden, repeatedly threatening to "flatten you one" or "slam your head off" when Frenchy objects to his latest wild idea. Frenchy suffers such gibes with apparent blind devotion, at least until the money rolls in.
These borrowings make the plot, and its comedy, less than original. And in the end, the film does little more than illustrate the old saw that money can't buy happiness. But seeing Woody wisecracking is a joy; the film is replete with smart one-liners and the irresistible self-deprecating humor that is his trademark. It also features excellent performances by Grant and also, notably, Elaine May as Frenchy's addle-brained cousin May, and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi in a cameo appearance as a frustrated gourmet chef forced to cook to Frenchy's unusual specifications.
As a result, Allen fans will likely enjoy "Small Time Crooks." The film hearkens back to a simpler, earlier Woody Allen, a comic content with just being funny and not aspiring to sophistication or profundity. Some critics may complain that this is a "dumbed-down" Woody Allen. But Allen is such a gifted comic that most fans won't miss his loftier ambitions.
Lawyers, in particular, should especially appreciate "Small Time Crooks." Allen has said that if this movie has any theme at all, it is "be careful what you wish for." Many law firm associates will respond to this message -- now more than ever, as escalating six-figure salaries fueled by dotcom competition drive billable hour demands through the roof, leaving beleaguered associates little time to see this, or any other, movie. As Ray and Frenchy discover, striking it rich is not always an unmixed blessing.