It ain’t easy watching your heroes get old. Old people can’t always get around so good and fall flat on their faces. They’ll do things; maybe you’ll be impressed, maybe you’ll laugh, maybe you’ll just look around the room nervously.
All the giants of 70s cinema are getting old. I’d like to believe all of them are still capable of greatness, but I look at some of their movies and I don’t know what the hell they’re doing or why they’re doing it. Yeah, I know, most of them could be kind of uneven back in the day. Sometimes they squeeze out diamonds, sometimes they just s**t out turds. Just because I can expect it doesn’t mean I can’t be taken back by the smell.
Take Woody Allen, for instance. While he may have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of Manhattan, he never sits still cinematically. His 30 features cover a broad range of styles and themes. Unfortunately, having a lot of ideas isn’t the same as having all good ones. When was the last time anyone you know watched “Interiors”, Allen’s attempt at Bergman between “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”? Averaging around a film a year for the last quarter century, the last ten years have been particularly marred by an “alternating” quality. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (good) was followed by “Alice” (bad) which was followed in 1992 by the pair “Husbands and Wives” (very good) and “Husbands and Wives” (very bad). More recently, “Deconstructing Harry” (excellent) was followed by “Celebrity” (horrible). Then came “Sweet and Lowdown” (brilliant) which brings us to… “Small Time Crooks”.
This time out, Woody plays Ray Winkler. An ex-con, Ray still has big-time dreams, but small-time talent. Usually, he can depend upon his ex-stripper, manicurist wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), for a reality check. This time, though, with the aid of his idiot partners, Denny (Michæl Rapaport), Tommy (Tony Darrow), and Benny (Jon Lovitz), Ray convinces Frenchy of the brilliance of his latest plan involving a former pizza place. Frenchy opens a cookie shop in the storefront to cover her husband’s activities, but from that point on, nothing quite works out like Ray had hoped.
Allen usually has an issue or two whose exploration propels his stories. After Ray and Frenchy come into a lot of money, we realize that Woody wants to explore the friction created between the drives for self-improvement and self-awareness. Once rich, Frenchy longs to be a part of New York High Society. She wants class and respect. Ray, however, wants to eat the same foods and do the same things. Frenchy believes that with a little effort, she can change any of her behaviors or desires, whether they’re an essential part of her personality or not. Even though Ray is secure in who he is, he refuses to change his behavior even though it could probably make him a better person than he is now. Both of the Winklers are screwed from the beginning by the acceptance of class distinctions. Ray does not want to leave his blue-collar circle of friends. Once Frenchy drags his to the upper echelon though, if they don’t learn that these are not really a better class of human beings, they’ll become susceptible to something much worse than “Small Time Crooks”.
Unfortunately, Woody didn’t develop his ideas enough to fill out an entire film. Even he, at times, acts like he’s padding his scenes. Everyone seems to be flailing at times, as if Allen only had the time to get the script done, not right. Too many scenes run out of funny and drift into painful to watch.
Of course, all of this could have been avoided. If the movies have taught us anything, no criminal plan can be successfully carried out with the aid of Michæl Rapaport (“Kiss of Death”, “True Romance”). Couldn’t he have hired, say, Ice Cube? Don’t get me wrong, I like Rapaport and all, but he’s kind of mined out all the territory he can with the bumbling crook thing. Wouldn’t you like to see Woody and Cube together? Maybe they could be a buddy-cop team. They could be a neurotic Jew (Cube) and, uh, streetwise detective (Allen) hot on the trail of, um…, some stolen monkeys. “Where’s my Monkey?” would be the story of two cops from conflicting culture with their backs against the wall in a race against time to save their monkeys.
Hey, it probably wouldn’t be any dumber that the film Allen actually did. The best thing you can say about “Small Time Crooks” is that we’re now one flick closer to a good Woody Allen movie.