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An Older But Less Wise Woody Allen Cashes In On Small Time Laughs In 'Crooks.'

By James DiGiovanna

MAY 29, 2000:  EVERY WOODY ALLEN film for the last 12 years has been greeted with the critical response, "It's just like the old Woody Allen films!" Small Time Crooks is no exception, receiving many comparisons to Take the Money and Run, though it's only real connection is that Woody again is playing a small time hood.

Still, even if STC is not like the old Woody Allen, there is something old about it. Basically, the dialogue sounds like a series of gags that were rejected by a 1960's Catskill comic for being too corny.

Woody: "I've got street smarts!"

Tracey Ullman (as his wife): "Yeah, your brain has potholes!" Ta dum.

There's also the fact that the vast majority of the cast is, as the French say, "of a certain age." In a way, this is sort of charming. Woody breaks with tradition and doesn't team himself up with a woman who's young enough to be, well, his wife. Instead, he casts himself opposite Tracey Ullman and Elaine May. I think this is part of the reason the film appears to be appealing to an older audience. Essentially, if you dig The Lawrence Welk Show, this could be a fun film for you.

It's actually kind of touching to see a movie where older people are given center stage, though it would have been better if the script had been up to the challenge. The most tragic thing about this film is that Woody seems to have been influenced by that most American of comedy genres, the movie about really stupid people. It's sort of a Dumb and Dumber and Older, with the big yuks coming from the moronic behavior of the main characters. This occasionally leads to a good joke, as when Ullman's character says of one of Woody's neanderthalish cronies, "All he needs is a piece of velvet and a mouse." Still, it's mostly the same old stupid stuff that made Jim Carrey famous. Of course, even Carrey has abandoned that material, so it's not clear why someone like Woody, who in the past has at least shown some real intelligence, would now pick it up.

The plot does have a nice twist to it. A bunch of, yes, small time crooks rent a storefront that's a few doors down from a bank. While trying to tunnel in to the loot, they put Ullman in charge of the store, which she converts into a cookie bakery. While their criminal scheme fizzles, the cookie store takes off and they all become millionaires.

OK, maybe it's not such a clever plot, but compared to the dialogue it's pure gold.

There's also some oddly amateurish camerawork by Fei Zhao. While Zhao's work in Asian cinema has been grand in scope (Raise The Red Lantern, The Emperor and the Assassin), STC is mostly shot in tight interiors, and Zhao doesn't handle these well. Then again, cinematographers never do their best work with Allen; even Sven Nyqvist, arguably the greatest director of photography in the history of cinema, turned in some pretty mediocre stuff on the three and a third films he did with Allen.

Mediocrity is of course no crime, as it's pretty much the standard by which American cinema judges itself. Still, what makes STC disappointing is that we know Woody Allen is capable of better. In spite of his recent spate of not-so-great movies, he's still considered one of the best American directors of all time. Just check out Annie Hall, Stardust Memories or Crimes and Misdemeanors. Well, maybe not Crimes and Misdemeanors, but still, he's made a few great films. And even when his films weren't great, they at least weren't stupid. Can't he just leave that genre to the Peter Farrelys/Dennis Dugans of the world?

Still, in spite of my reservations, I think that there's an audience for this film, one that is too often neglected by the Hollywood hit machine, i.e. the retirement age crowd. It's not such a bad film that it would be totally unenjoyable for those at whom it's aimed. I just wish it had been aware of the basic truth that older people not only want to see themselves represented on film, but that they want to see it done extremely well.


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