In his eminently forgettable "Stardust Memories" (1980), Woody Allen in the persona of a world-famous director in the Fellini mold, a kind of pizza made with Velveeta, catsup and Wonder bread, visits a college to participate in a leaden symposium on the art of the film. Rather than receiving his anticipated carload of kudos, the critics attack him: "Make funnier pictures...like the old ones."
After 20 years of filming his analyst’s notebookssome of them very funny and some surprisingly profoundAllen has taken his critics’ advice and returned to his original purchase on his audiences’ admiration and even affection. He has made a funny movie with characters who are not neurotic, not obsessed with an unattainable love, not torn by ethical dilemmas, not tortured by their Jewishness and not facing mortality through the discovery of some imaginary fatal disease. In fact, he has gone back to Fielding Melish, failed criminal, the character he created in his directorial debut, "Take the Money and Run" (1968). Ray Winkler, this new incarnation of Melish, is older, but scarcely wiser.
Small Time Crooks lacks the usual tautness of a Woody Allen script, but the characters are so endearing that only a churl, or a card-holding cinéaste, would notice. Ray Winkler (Woody Allen) has paid his modest debt to society, but now well into his 60’s he struggles as a dishwasher and dreams of the one big heist that will allow him to flee across the Hudson River for the fleshpots of Miami, where he can go to the dog races and swim every day.
His wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), a retired exotic dancer from New Jersey, now "does nails" for a living. She waited for Ray during the years of his involuntary sojourn upstate and now dutifully keeps house for them. Her specialty: spaghetti with turkey meatballs. As mother hen in her tad-too-tight spandex slacks, she also sits on the family nest egg, hoping that it will one day hatch into a better apartment in a nicer neighborhood. Ray cannot wait. He wants to crack the egg immediately and use the proceeds to crack the safe he has been scoping for nearly a year.
At the start of the first episode in the film, Ray is pitted against Frenchy in a contest for the family fortune, but once he gets the cash out of her he includes her among the misfits he recruits for his criminal band. Bonnie, Clyde and company they’re not. In fact, if these are the best brains the underworld can produce, all the cops in the country would be out of workexcept in Los Angeles, of course. They rent an empty store, and as a front, Frenchy makes cookies upstairs, while those escapees from Mensa begin to tunnel into the basement of a bank two doors down the street. None of them has ever used a drill before, and they agree that wearing their miners’ helmets backward looks cool, even though the attached flashlight shines behind them. Late in the game, they discover that they have been holding their map and the floor plan of the bank upside down.
As the cookie would crumble for this crowd, the store becomes such a success that it threatens to blow their cover. Local television picks up the story of the miracle American opportunity. People wait on line (in New York it’s on line, not in line as it is in Transhudsonia) for a half hour to get one of Frenchy’s sugary delights. To keep the crowds down they hire Cousin May (Elaine May), a person whose talents (how shall we put this delicately?) have not yet come to the attention of the Nobel Prize committee. Being somewhat confused by all the digging in the basement, she repeatedly tells her story to the neighborhood beat cop when he stops off for his daily (free) cookie.
A convenient fade-to-black indicates the passage of time and skirts by the wonders of the American free enterprise system. This time it’s national television that covers the story of Ray and Frenchy’s rise from a single shop to an empire of baking enterprises, a veritable Starbucks for sugar addicts. In episode two, the script does an abrupt right turn from crime caper to social satire as the Winklers, with their newfound fortune, try to crash high society. Even though Ray dresses like an emcee for a Coney Island floorshowgold lapels to show off the expensive tux, you knowhe longs for the simple pleasures of the good old days: cold beer, cold pizza and poker with his cronies.
Frenchy has other ambitions. With all her new money, she can dress just as she pleases, but her outfits are garish enough to make Bette Midler as the Divine Miss M. look like Dorothy Day on a hunger strike. Their Park Avenue apartment seems to have been decorated from a garage sale at Caesar’s Palace. She loves to rub elbows with old money, and sadly learns that they consider her new money simply vulgar. Crushed by the discovery of her own ignorance, she hires a slimy art dealer (Hugh Grant) to introduce her to the finer things of life. In an uncharacteristically gentle bit of social commentary, Allen lets his audience discover that Frenchy is one of the finer things of life, of Ray’s life anyway.
In the third episode, Allen turns from social satire back to another caper. Ray’s longing for the old way of life leads him to yet another dream of the heist to end all heists. (What happened to all his money, you ask. Don’t ask. Pay your eight dollars and find out. Even if you find the script unconvincing, the riches-to-rags fable is very funny.) Now that he has had a taste of the good life, Ray cannot see himself digging through basement walls under a bakery in the company of Larry, Moe and Curly. This time he plans a black tie jewel theft that would do justice to Cary Grant in a classic Hitchcock thriller. But Ray is Ray, not Cary Grant, so instead of getting the priceless necklace and Grace Kelly, he gets embarrassed and Frenchy, maven of munchies.
"Small Time Crooks" offers more old-fashioned charm than Woody Allen has allowed lately. Over the last few years, even his funny characters generally have had either a nasty edge to them or a kind of whining self-centered quality that destroys those around them. By contrast, Ray and Frenchy really love each other and sacrifice a lot of themselves to prove their love. They deserve the slick happy ending worthy of a 1950’s television sitcom that they actually get. It’s phony, but perfect.
While this script has the usual fusillade of one-liners, Allen has wisely shared them with his two delightful co-stars, both of whom are relatively unknown to movie-goers. Tracey Ullman, as Frenchy, has tried several styles on cable television, but her genius is the short skit and characterization, a cross between Sid Caesar and Lily Tomlin, and I mean that as very high praise indeed. Sadly, skit comedy has little place in television today. Elaine May, as the deadpan, slightly dotty and ever gentle Cousin May, does more than hold her own with these two comic giants. Since her days as comic partner to Mike Nichols, she has devoted her considerable talents to writing and to club appearances. As one might say to Dolly Levi, "It’s so nice to have you back where you belong."
Has Woody mellowed? I wonder. The loveliest scene in the film occurs during one of Ray’s and Frenchy’s reconciliations. As they overlook the rooftops, the brilliant Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei captures a golden sunset, the kind of high-color postcard-pretty shot that seems terribly out of place in Woody’s gritty urban universe. It stands out. The store they open is Sunset Cookies, and it grows into the Sunset Baking Corporation. It’s been 32 years since Fielding Melish, failed criminal, warned us that a bright young comic mind had turned his attention to the movies. If this is the mellowing sunset of Woody Allen’s career, let’s hope he has a few more postcards like "Small Time Crooks" to leave behind before he retires to Miami to swim and visit the dog track. Just kidding. He could never leave Manhattan.