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Small Time Crooks

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Like many recent efforts from writer/actor/ director Woody Allen, Small Time Crooks treads familiar territory. The movie's set in New York, and he plays yet another neurotic. Still, his gift for snappy banter (for example, actor Michael Rapaport's warped take on Pavlovian psychology and cookies) remains undiminished, and there's a genuine sweetness that was missing from his snidely caustic efforts Celebrity and Deconstructing Harry.

This time out, Allen stars as Ray Winkler, an aging career criminal whose numerous attempts at petty larceny have earned him the sarcastic nickname of "The Brain." He struggles to pay his bills by washing dishes, while his wife, Frenchy (British chameleon Tracey Ullman), works as a manicurist. He cajoles (when his numerous idle threats don't work) Frenchy into investing in his bizarre scheme to buy a vacant pizza shop. He and his equally maladroit accomplices (Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, and Scorsese-film veteran Tony Darrow) plan to tunnel into a bank that's two doors down. To make the scheme complete, Frenchy opens a cookie store as a front and hires her soft-headed cousin, May (Elaine May), to work there.

Needless to say, fate plays a strange joke on them. The seemingly simple tunneling scheme becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare, and Frenchy's cookies inadvertently become the toast of Manhattan. Within a year, the couple become legitimate tycoons. Curiously, none of this makes Ray or Frenchy happy. Sensitive about her roots as a stripper, Frenchy tries to make herself more sophisticated and hires a suave art dealer (who else but Hugh Grant?) to teach her the ropes about wines, literature, and paintings. Ray resents her new attitude and secretly dreams of cracking safes again.

The rest of the film is predictable and lacks the imagination of Allen's masterpieces. Key story points seem forced, and the ending is abrupt. Still, Small Time Crooks delivers its share of laughs and makes terrific use of its ace cast. Listening to Ullman lamely attempt to expand her vocabulary is a scream (she practically memorizes every word in the dictionary that begins with "A"). Her flawless New York accent and nonstop energy consistently delight. However, May (who usually writes such movies as The Birdcage and Primary Colors) steals the show in her first on-camera role in years. She's played twits before (like her hilarious turn in A New Leaf), but here she is a consistently innovative dunce. Rather than falling back on dumb blonde or brunette routines, she answers questions about the weather by quoting word-for-word the meteorologists she's heard (" ... with a chance for ... "). It's also a rare delight to see Allen briefly woo a woman on screen who is actually a few years older than he is. An additional treat is Grant's reworking of his gentlemanly persona. Here, his debonair manner masks a cruel opportunism. After seeing him play the same role again and again, it's nice to spot some signs of a range.

To his credit, Allen spends most of his time in Small Time Crooks as a foil for May and Ullman and avoids hogging the camera. He doesn't seem to exert himself that much here, but at least he gives a couple of gifted comediennes some overdue exposure (PG) Rating: 7

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