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Why do fans still flock to Woody Allen's movies?

Ty Burr says the director’s New York-centric vision has critics fooled

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Why do fans still flock to Woody Allen’s movies?

If I’ve got to make this confession, I may as well make it 12 step style. So here goes: My name is Ty, and I am the only person in New York City who thinks Woody Allen is a lousy director.

I sat through the Woodman’s latest, ”Small Time Crooks” because my wife, like many other Manhattanites past, present, and future, feels that Allen’s name on a marquee signifies a certain cultural watermark of quality. She believes, as anyone does who grew up reading New York Times’ critic Vincent Canby’s knee-jerk raves in the ’70s and ’80s, that Allen is our very own European auteur, committed to self-expression, genre-busting creativity, and intellectual heft. And he’s funny, too.

This all might be true — IF HIS MOVIES WERE ANY GOOD. But the inarguable badness of ”Small Time Crooks” ripped the remaining scales from my beloved’s eyes; even she admitted it stunk.

”Crooks” is a tale of a dese-dem-and-dose couple (played by Allen and Tracey Ullman) who luck out of larceny and into a lifestyle of the rich and famous, and it’s more evidence — as if we needed it — that this filmmaker has no understanding of anyone who doesn’t live within 10 fancy blocks of Central Park. Ray and Frenchy are supposed to be the director’s affectionate homage to Ralph and Alice Kramden; they come off, instead, as an out-of-touch elitist’s caricature of blue-collar boobs, joining Hazelle Goodman’s hooker from ”Deconstructing Harry” and Tim Roth’s jailbird from ”Everyone Says I Love You” in Allen’s gallery of cutesy-poo lowlife cartoons.

The galling irony is that ”Crooks” initially seems as if it’s going to be a late-period companion to the director’s bank heist comedy breakthrough, 1969’s ”Take the Money and Run.” Sadly, the jokes just ain’t there — the dialogue in the new film feels scattershot and unfunny. Only Elaine May, playing Ullman’s childlike cousin, gets laughs, and that’s more from her beguilingly wifty demeanor than anything in the film per se.

The truth is, Allen has been running on fumes as a filmmaker for at least a decade — yet he still gets a free ride from moviegoers and critics who confuse independence and highmindedness with genuine artistry. Do his films feature great casts? Yes — but he coaches those casts to ape his own fussy mannerisms (think of Judy Davis in ”Husbands and Wives” or John Cusack in ”Bullets Over Broadway”). Does he reference such classic directors as Ingmar Bergman (”Shadows and Fog”) and Fellini (”Celebrity”)? Sure — in a Classics-Illustrated way that lets him score highbrow points while avoiding a genuinely personal vision.

The two things that, to me, highlight Allen’s creative bankruptcy are his reliance on that old-timey jazz-and-white-typeface credit sequence for all his movies (maybe he calls it continuity; I call it a rut) and his aversion to addressing his apparent taste for very young women (he played it leeringly straight in ”Manhattan” and has kept far away from the topic since the Soon-Yi thing broke). That’s his business, I know, but as a self-styled personal filmmaker, you think he’d cop to it.

About now, you’re saying, ”Hey, Ty, Woody’s made 33 movies and you’ve made none, so quit yer carping.” All right, I’ll admit he’s made some near-great ones. ”Sleeper”; ”Zelig”; ”Hannah and Her Sisters”; ”Crimes and Misdemeanors”; ”Bullets Over Broadway” — that’s my list. ”Annie Hall” has dated, ”Manhattan” is overrated; too many of the others play to an increasingly narrow audience that, by now, consists of about 52 people on East 86 Street. His work, in other words, is pitched so high that only movie critics and debutantes can hear it.

Long ago, Allen got tired of defending himself from folks who wished he’d go back to making ”funny” movies. (He even made a bad film about it — ”Stardust Memories,” in which those people are depicted as ugly freaks). The irony is that his early comedies remain, in many ways, his most artistically honest. MGM’s rereleasing them onto video and DVD next month: eight films, including ”Bananas,” ”Take the Money and Run,” ”Sleeper,” and ”Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.” Those are all movies that still have the shock of the fresh, that see the world in a singular way, that feel as if they’re coming from deep inside their maker’s fizzing cranium.

In other words, they were all made before Woody Allen became an Artist.