By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated May 26, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Woody Allen explored the burlesque of the inept thief — the schlemiel whose illegal big-guy schemes are forever thwarted by his own innocent little-guy incompetence — more than 30 years ago in Take the Money and Run: Virgil Starkwell couldn’t even write a legible holdup note, and his bumbling put Allen in league with silent-era comedy underdogs like Buster Keaton. In Small Time Crooks, the filmmaker returns to the scene of bungled crimes with a droll ”early-period” Allen caper about Ray Winkler, a hapless bank robber and dreamer married to Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), a manicurist who has made peace with the narrow dimensions of their domesticity. The Winklers are variations on The Honeymooners‘ Ralph and Alice Kramden; Allen hammers home the similarities with heavy-handed Kramden-esque dialogue, especially whenever Ray raises a faux-furious fist to his wife and yells, ”I’d like to flatten you just once!”

But this isn’t The Honeymooners, even if Frenchy calls herself ”the luckiest woman in the world.” It’s a Woody Allen project featuring his usual preoccupations — in this case, the correlation between money and happiness, and the contrast between the status that comes with rolling in dough and the class that comes with having taste. The Winklers get their bread not because of Ray’s criminal activities — which are shticky slapstick duds — but because Frenchy, who literally rolls dough in a bakery she opens as a front for one of her husband’s planned heists, becomes an unwitting entrepreneur. Pretty soon, the couple joins the ranks of the nouveau riche — with all of the garishness which that class suggests to Allen.

Ray’s affinity for beer, cards, and going to the track remains simple or, arguably, boorish. But Frenchy yearns for a more pretentious or, arguably, more cultured life: She attaches herself to David (Hugh Grant, sending up his own posh persona), an art dealer whose snazzy British accent hides the moves of a scam artist, while her husband passes time with Frenchy’s ditsy cousin, May (an adorable Elaine May).

Small Time Crooks is sweet and ”affirmative” about the possibilities for long-term marital companionship. Yet what’s striking is that Frenchy’s very equality — played up, with Ullman’s usual comic-chameleon ability — desexualizes her. As Julie Kavner did before her, Ullman represents female pal-hood at an erotic price.

And what’s even more striking is that for all its wispy fun, Small Time Crooks still tilts, with little-guy stubbornness, at windmills in Allen’s mind. The unflinching close-ups (shot by Zhao Fei, who also worked on Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown) of the famous New Yorker in droopy shorts, looking remarkably skinny and wizened, are a sharp thrill — as are passing amusing moments that tease out confessions the 64-year-old artist may not even know he’s making about what’s on his obsessive, compulsive, little-big-guy mind. B-

Small Time Crooks

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 95 minutes
  • Woody Allen