Directed By Woody Allen
By: Eric G.
Woody Allen comes full circle with a slapstick comedy about bungling, white trash criminals in his first picture for Dreamworks. Not since Take The Money And Run has Allen been so overtly about getting gut-busting laughs. He doesn’t go for the easy way out either, despite the ‘fish out of water’ premise of a pack of low-rents who strike it rich and find themselves rubbing shoulders with ridiculously wealthy movers and shakers. Allen only stoops to low brow comedy when it’s absolutely necessary. Most of his jokes are literary references or insightful mockeries of vapid Manhattan elitism. In a span of only a few minutes Allen manages to squeeze in a joke about Polish carpools and turn around with an even funnier allusion to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray.
Allen’s films aren’t designed for the masses. Matt Lauer recently told Hugh Grant (who was promoting Small Time Crooks on the Today Show) that “it’s not that people don’t get Woody Allen films; it’s just that many people simply don’t like them.” I would question the veracity of that statement, but even if that were the case, that’s fine by me. Weed out the morons. If Joe Moviegoer hates Woody Allen films, he can keep all the Amageddons and Wild Wild Wests for himself. That is not to say that if you don’t like ‘Woody Allen films’ you are stupid, but it’s a good measuring stick for an offbeat sense of humor. Allen’s own sense of humor is of a particularly neurotic but well-read breed. His persona may be annoying to some, but when he’s on the material is unquestionably funny. What other director could make Tracy Ullman watchable for ninety minutes?
Small Time Crooks starts very slowly with uncharacteristically awkward dialogue. The jokes take about fifteen minutes to warm up, but once Allen catches his stride the film is consistently funny. Hugh Grant plays up his fey image to great comedic effect as an art dealer, trying to woo Tracey Ullman’s naive, nouveau riche, and social-climbing character out of her fortune. John Lovitz puts in a brief but memorable appearance as a wisecracking (surprise) ex-con, whom Allen befriends in order to lure him into the big scam, and Michael Rapaport plays the usual ditzy-blonde-guy character that he perfected in True Romance. The ensemble acting works amazingly well under Allen’s strangely unnerving direction.
Allen packs so many jokes into Small Time Crooks that it practically demands repeat viewings. The laughter in the theater would spill over the tightly paced punch lines, which is unusual at Woody Allen films- not the tight pacing but the actual crowd (I’m used to the theater being completely empty for a Woody Allen opening). When first I heard Allen was consciously making a slapstick feature I was nervous that he might be lampooning himself, but I was worried for nothing. Allen is too obsessively self-aware to let his guard down so easily. I should have known he wouldn’t be so careless as to look like a caricature of himself. He has flirted with absurdity in the past, though, in regards to his pairings with young Hollywood starlets like Julia Roberts and Elisabeth Shue, but he’s never actually crossed the line into farce.
Old age hasn’t dulled Allen’s edge or wit a bit. Perhaps, he dabbles too much in cliche when he plays himself down for a character, but the laughs outweight the missteps. He really is crazy, and this film, despite some of its glaring flaws, is truly one of his funniest in years. It won’t rank up there with Love And Death or Manhattan, but it’s good for a few laughs. And, at the very least, it’s funnier than anything by Kevin Smith.