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Woody Allen drops the angst and has a hit

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Woody Allen
Kelly Jordan/Globe

Woody Allen’s been hearing it for years: Fans prefer his ”earlier, funnier” movies. The complaint even became a running gag in the Manhattan auteur’s moody 1980 film ”Stardust Memories.” Well, finally the 64 year old actor/writer/director has taken that advice and gone screwball in ”Small Time Crooks,” a ”rags to riches” caper about bumbling petty thief Ray Winkler (Allen) and his manicurist wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) that earned $3.8 million in its opening weekend, making it Allen’s biggest opening in more than 20 years. ”I nearly died,” says Hugh Grant, who costars as a scheming art dealer. ”It’s like ‘Bananas”’

Or possibly ”The Honeymooners”: Ray and Frenchy, who ride a botched bank heist and a booming bakery business to Park Avenue’s high society, engage in the kind of silly, snappy wordplay that Allen calls an homage to ’40s screwball comedies. ”I’ve always been a big fan of Ernst Lubitsch, and I felt that I could see his influence in this film,” Allen says of the man who directed the nimble comedy classics ”To Be or Not to Be” and ”Ninotchka.”

But don’t expect Allen, who last March signed a three-picture distribution deal with DreamWorks, to keep following in the footsteps of his favorite directors. ”I thought this would be a funny movie, so I made it,” he says. ”But the truth is, it’s just chance what I decide to make. At the end of the year, I’ll check my little matchbooks and napkins, and pick the idea I want to develop.” Ullman, for her part, says if you don’t dig old-style comedy, there’s a fashionable reason to catch ”Crooks”: the outrageous costumes, which include chartreuse lycra leggings, cheap Versace knockoffs, and pink neon shrugs. ”Just to see Woody in a pair of stonewashed denim shorts,” she says, ”is worth the price of admission for me.”

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