Published May 01, 2000Sometimes we forget what a great storyteller Woody Allen can be. The light comedic tempo of Small Time Crooks is becoming the norm for Allen's present day work (Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Celebrity, Sweet and Lowdown) but it's his uncanny ability to convey the simplest of tales with charm and ingenuity that makes this film a standout. It begins as bumbling crime caper à la Bowery Boys (Allen's love for the Marx Brothers takes centre stage), suddenly veers into a wonderfully absurdist faux-documentary with traces of Zelig, and then swings down the home stretch as a money-driven retelling of My Fair Lady.
The story is merely one of a trashy couple who can't escape their nature: Allen as a failed crook who's presently employed washing dishes, and Tracey Ullman as his ex-stripper wife, now a manicurist. The characters are a joy to watch, even as Allen attempts to move beyond his usual portrayal of himself, this time playing a dim-witted stooge nicknamed "Brain" full of crass Archie Bunker-isms. Ullman is hilarious as the iconic low-class American housewife trying to better herself, and funny man Jon Lovitz manages to induce laughter by just showing up on the screen. Michael Rapaport plays essentially the same character he first portrayed for Allen in Mighty Aphrodite but there's no way he could improve the "loveable oaf." And while stupidity is somewhat of a theme in Small Time Crooks, it's Elaine May who takes thick into a new dimension of density. Best known as the writer behind films such as Heaven Can Wait, The Birdcage and Primary Colors (and best forgotten as the director of the dreadful Ishtar), May is side-splittingly funny in front of the camera. Only Hugh Grant fails to give his stuffy money-chasing character any pizzazz, which is too bad since he's one of the few people in the film devoid of empathy. Small Time Crooks can be seen as a social commentary on wealth and taste, but it makes its point without that heavy-handed philosophical analysis that used to be part of the Allen tradition. Instead we get a classic tale that finds its stride in simplicity.