Small Time Crooks

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Woody Allen has made a career of doing films that critics love and audiences ignore. For the first time in a quarter-century, he may finally have a popular success with “Small Time Crooks,” by far his most accessible, pleasant comedy in years.

Allen plays Ray, a middle-aged schlub in New York with a menial job and a checkered past: He used to be an inept criminal, and he did some time. His wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), loves him all the same, and they have a “Honeymooners” relationship, constantly bickering (“Always with the wise-cracks!” Ray says of his wife) in that endearing New York way we’re so fond of.

Ray comes up with a scheme to get them out of New York and down to Florida (the promised land for Manhattan Jews, apparently). There’s a vacant store two doors down from a bank. Ray proposes they buy the building and open some phony business as a front while Ray and some of his dim-bulb buddies secretly dig a tunnel into the bank from the basement.

The phony business? Well, Frenchy’s pretty good at baking cookies, so they go with that. Ray and his pals prove to be just as useless at digging tunnels as they were at committing crimes, and the bank heist is a disaster. In the meantime, though, Frenchy’s cookies have become extremely popular, and the movie flashes forward one year, when Sunset Cookies is a Fortune 500 conglomerate, with franchises all over the country, and Ray and Frenchy are incredibly rich.

The rest of the film deals with that scenario. They suddenly have what they supposedly always wanted, and they’re hobnobbing with the elite. They soon learn, however, that there’s a difference between wealth and sophistication. They’re richer than anyone at the parties they go to, but they don’t know squat about high culture.

Ray doesn’t care. He just wants to be a regular guy again. Frenchy, though, enlists the aid of snooty art salesman David (Hugh Grant) to teach her about art, opera and culture. (“I want to learn how to spell Connecticut,” Ray says, completely disinterested in Frenchy’s ambitions.) David, though, may have ulterior motives in regards to Frenchy’s money.

This is a whimsical, light-hearted movie, with almost no point whatsoever. A comparison was made earlier to “The Honeymooners,” and in truth, it plays out like a long episode of that show. Ralph has a get-rich-quick scheme, it doesn’t work, Alice rescues him, they try to be something they’re not, and they eventually realize they’ve made a mistake and everything goes back to normal. There are a few twists along the way, but that’s essentially it.

It’s a little unfortunate mid-way through the movie, when Ray’s friends disappear from the scene. Played by Tony Darrow, Michael Rappaport, George Grizzard and Jon Lovitz, they’re a fabulous bunch of losers and imbeciles. Their absence, however, is compensated for by the presence of Frenchy’s cousin May (Elaine May), a fantastically dense woman who just might be the most endearing character in the film. She’s certainly the funniest, stealing many a scene right out from under Woody Allen, which is no small feat.

A- (; PG, very mild profanity.)

In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.

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