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IN SHORT: Guffaws and then some. Fine comedy for grown-ups.
The links for Allen and Grant below lead to CrankyCritic® Star Talk pages. (We're not dissing Ullman, who also talked with us, she kept tapping on the mic and the tape is undecipherable. Sorry.)
When we were first informed that Woody Allen's new movie would return him to his slapstick roots of, say, Take the Money And Run or so, our first thought was "cool". Our second thought was "I wonder if that kind of humor will stand up against below the belt stuff like There's Something About Mary and/or American Pie". Then again, we try not to make those comparisons, so the point was moot.
As for thought number one, Small Time Crooks is less slapstick than we imagined and much funnier than we could have dreamed. 30 years of writing characters with humorous undertones has sharpened Allen's gag writing abilities to a diamond blade sharpness. In the critic's screening, I was laughing so hard that I went to see the flick again on another night, with a "real" audience, to catch the gags missed the first time around. Things kind of settled down on second view and the rating reflects that.
The set-up is so simple: an empty store next to a bank gives a shleppy, ex-convict (now dishwasher) named Ray Winkler (Woody Allen) the idea to tunnel into the vault from underneath. With friends Denny (Michael Rapaport) and Tommy (Tony Darrow) pitching in with muscle and cash, Allen's wife Frenchie (Tracey Ullman) opens a store up top, serving such delicacies as pistachio creme, tuna mint and chicken chip cookies, as cover. Benny Wachowski (Jon Lovitz) rounds out the gang, but how he comes into this flick would spoil a great gag. This group of dim wits begin to build a tunnel . . . Two. Three. Four.
It doesn't take much to guess where this flick is heading, of course, and Allen's script veers off into a world where the nouveau riche dim-wits try to buy into "high society". Ray wants to sit around a drink beer. Frenchie, now Frances, implores art dealer David Peret (Hugh Grant) to teach them culture. This second part moves the comedy closer to the character driven gags of the last decade of Allen flicks as the inevitable pulls at our heroes, and alien arms loom to embrace 'em both.
Obviously, I'm desperately trying to avoid spilling the gags and so apologize for that last sentence.
In this film, Allen and Ullman roles are the latest in a long line of bickering long term married couples (which dates back to "The Bickersons" on network radio in the 1940s). One has ambition. One doesn't. One yearns for more. One is going to be dumped by less . . . and that last sentence makes no sense until you see the bravura performance by Elaine May as Frenchie's cousin May, the lookout who doesn't understand the meaning of the words "zip yer lips". How May, who was headlining nightclubs with then partner Mike Nichols when Allen was first breaking into standup, has managed to go three decades without a part in a Woody Allen flick is beyond me. (She's been writing and directing but still . . .) She delivers a sweetness to a character who could easily be played as a total moron and brings laughs to every scene she appears in.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Small Time Crooks, he would have paid...
Small Time Crooks is fantabulous.
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