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Small Time Crooks***

Ray Winkler (Woody Allen), not only a small time crook but an equally inept one, and his even more inept associates plot to take over a defunct pizzeria in New York city and dig a tunnel through to a bank a few doors away. In order to make this front plausible, Ray's wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) is drafted into baking and selling cookies by the band. Although the planned heist goes completely awry owing to Ray's inability to read a map, the cookie business booms spectacularly and Frenchy soon needs to hire an assistant to help run the store--her prototypically ditzy cousin May (Elaine May). 

As an ironic result of this reversal of fortune, the small time crooks now become far richer than they ever would have been if they had successfully robbed the bank, but with wealth comes new worries. Frenchy longs for the finer things of life and tries to better herself with the help of a scheming art dealer named David (Hugh Grant), who plays court to the impressionable Frenchy and soon contemplates making her his wife. 

Sadly, Frenchy is doomed to be ruined by crooks who are far bigger and shrewder  than Ray and his half-witted sidekicks: her accountants loot the cookie business for all that it is worth and run off to Venezuela, leaving Frenchy with a promissory note for $2 million--her entire personal fortune--that they have tricked her into signing. In the meantime, Ray, fed up with the lifestyles of the rich and famous--he prefers cheap Chinese food to haute cuisine--and alienated by Frenchy's flirtation with David, has a brief fling with May and involves her in the projected theft of a priceless necklace owned by the wealthy dowager Chi Chi Potter (Elaine Stritch). 

But that caper is as much of a disaster as the attempted bank job, and the end finds the Winklers reunited, looking forward to a comfortable retirement in Florida that will be funded by disposing of an expensive gift Frenchy has managed to retrieve from David without his knowledge. All's well that ends well!

Woody Allen's latest movie is a light comic fable about success in America, a street smart opera buffa with a dash of classic slapstick to liven things up. But instead of blending the two, Allen has placed the two brilliant slapstick episodes--the abortive bank robbery and Ray's attempt to purloin the Potter jewels, aided by the bumbling May--at the beginning and end of Small Time Crooks, placing the comic opera in the middle and introducing it with a very funny videotaped send up of a television report on the cookie company, which has gone from storefront business to huge corporate empire in the twinkling of an eye. 

Allen has always been quite expert at pacing his comedies, and this picture moves briskly from beginning to end. Nor is there the slightest hesitation in tone: from the moment Small Time Crooks departs upon its comic parabola until it completes its trajectory, the film does not touch earth for one second. In these days of overnight dot com multimillionaires, a good deal more seriousness could have been injected into this fable--and directors like Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder, not to mention Frank Capra, might have chosen to do so, but Allen stays even further away from seriousness than do Peter and Bobby Farrelly in Me, Myself & Irene. 

Small Time Crooks is no Beggar's Opera and much less a Threepenny Opera, only a Manhattan one, in which Allen seems to be taking a timeout after the bitter poignancy of Sweet and Lowdown. It would perhaps be malicious to call Small Time Crooks lite Allen, but the performances are the film's strong point, particularly Elaine May's bravura turn as Ray's would-be partner in crime.

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E-mail Dave: daveclayton@worldnet.att.net

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