At first glance, it is hard to tell one Woody Allen film from the next. Always the same design of the credits, the same use of trad jazz tunes, the same repertory cast of actors, the same mannerisms from Woody himself.
And Allen's style as a filmmaker develops almost as little as Paul Cox's – for decades now, he has relied on a bland, TV style that merely highlights the verbal witticisms of his scripts.
But Small Time Crooks forces one to ponder the crucial difference between a good Woody Allen film and a poor one. This is a modestly fine entry in his vast oeuvre – in the league of Broadway Danny Rose (1984) or Bullets Over Broadway (1994), and thus far more bearable than his worst films of the '90s, such as Deconstructing Harry (1997) or Celebrity (1998).
Bad Allen films lose their steam because they play like extended TV sitcom episodes. Sweet and Lowdown (2000), for instance, took its statically defined characters through an endless series of identical punchlines. And this director's view of the world becomes downright distasteful when it snobbishly conjures a division between 'gifted' individuals (usually artists of some description) and 'ugly' ordinary folk.
Small Time Crooks works and amuses because, for a change, the plot actually moves. The situations keep changing, and so do the characters. At the start, those (like myself) who are unsympathetic to Allen's overrated achievements as an auteur may think they can guess everything coming. Ray (Allen) is a petty criminal loser who hatches a mad plan: his wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), will run a cookie shop as a cover, while he and his friends dig a tunnel into a nearby bank.
Hardly twenty minutes later, the plot switches and goes somewhere else entirely. Through an amusing and unexpected series of events, Ray and Frenchy find themselves wildly wealthy. They mix in a new social set and encounter entirely unfamiliar problems. And herein lies the lesson: Allen's movies only truly take off when they deal with the drama and comedy of social mobility. Sudden wealth and equally sudden poverty are his best plot devices.
I have not enjoyed an Allen movie this much in many years. Amidst the familiar faces, a newcomer to the ensemble stands out: Elaine May as Frenchy's slightly dim sister. Although it seems to be a well-kept secret, May is one of the greatest writer-directors in contemporary American cinema. This film returns May to her first profession, performing comedy – and she is quietly superb.
After the strenuous verbal obscenities of Deconstructing Harry, it is surprising to find Allen crafting such a chaste, discreet film. Even as the plot raises the possibility of multiple infidelities – such as that between Frenchy and the smooth-talking, gold-digging art dealer, David (Hugh Grant) – it maintains a perfectly tactful surface.
Such repression appears to bring out the best in Allen as a storyteller. Small Time Crooks is no masterpiece – winding around as it does to sitcom mode in the final act – but it displays a charm and ingenuity that I figured had been well and truly lost from Allen's career.
© Adrian Martin January 2001