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'Small Time Crooks'

Woody the gangster: Allen tries to take the money and run in 'Small Time Crooks'

Friday, May 19, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Television commercials for "Small Time Crooks" may lead you to believe it's a heist movie featuring the gang who couldn't shoot straight. The gang who, while digging a tunnel, wear their miner's hardhats with the lights in the back because they look cooler that way. Your first instinct might be thanks, but no thanks.

'Small Time Crooks'

Rating: PG for language

Starring: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman

Director: Woody Allen

Critic's call: 3 stars


But "Small Time Crooks" starts off as one movie (and a rather sluggish one at that) and, after 30 minutes, turns into something entirely different -- and rather delightful. "Small Time Crooks" is not uproarious, tears-streaming-down-your-face funny, but it's clever and amusing, a comic take on the nouveau riche and not-so-nouveau riche, also known as Old Money.

Woody Allen wrote, directed and stars in "Small Time Crooks" as Ray, a former numbers runner, pet cemetery operator and failed stick-up man who now works as a dishwasher. He's married to a onetime exotic dancer turned manicurist, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), a woman who is fascinated by the rich and royals she watches on TV.

After 25 years, they seem well versed in their roles and routines. He's all bluster, ordering her to put his dinner on the table and threatening violence at one point. "Oh yeah, with your hernia," she spits back, cutting him down to scrawny size, evident as his spindly legs poke out of his stone-washed denim shorts.

In prison, Ray was known as "The Brain," a nickname he took seriously and others used with sarcasm. Ray cooks up a scheme to rent an empty New York pizza parlor a couple of doors down from a bank, assemble a gang and tunnel into the vault that he figures holds $2 million. To provide a front for their subterranean skullduggery, Frenchy opens a business, and all of their lives take unexpected turns.

To say more would ruin your fun; you should watch events unfold just as I did -- with no spoilers. The moment a nationally known TV personality appears, the fuse finally ignites and the fireworks start.

In addition to Allen, whose nebbish feels fresh here (or maybe it's just been a while since he gave himself such a role), and the chameleon-like comedianUllman, the actors include Elaine May as Frenchy's slow-witted cousin; Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow and Jon Lovitz as Ray's criminal compatriots; and a perfectly cast and coiffed Hugh Grant as an art dealer who once was a literature student, stockbroker, Buddhist and vineyard owner. Elaine Stritch shows up, too, as a society matron. It's a terrific ensemble.

"Small Time Crooks" is lightweight fare, but enjoyable lightweight fare. No potential Oscar nominees, as in "Sweet and Lowdown." No need to explain the differences between Allen and his neurotic, obsessive writer in "Deconstructing Harry." No breaking into song and dance, as in "Everyone Says I Love You." No dizzying camera moves, as in "Husbands and Wives." No need to go beyond roughly 90-odd minutes or even a PG rating.

At a time when the world seems besotted by bucks, with dot.coms, stocks and $350 million lottery jackpots always ready to dangle and drain money from your pocket, "Small Time Crooks" is a reminder that you need to be careful what you wish for. You may just get it -- and then what would you do?

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