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Escape to Allen’s New York

by Kaori Shoji

Small Time Crooks

Rating: * * * * Director: Woody Allen Running time: 95 minutes Language: English
Now showing

“Small Time Crooks” is not Woody Allen’s latest film (it was released in the United States last year), but you find yourself wishing it was. Wishing, in fact, that it was shot after Sept. 11 and that it was Allen’s most recent take on life in New York. That way you could almost fool yourself into believing that none of that day’s events ever happened — after all, here’s the most New Yorker of New Yorkers to tell you so.

Tracey Ullman and Woody Allen in “Small Time Crooks”

How Allen will adjust or maintain his filming style after this year remains to be seen. In the meantime, we in Japan have “Small Time Crooks.” A small and cozy picture, it combines two familiar themes of Allen’s films: the characteristic working-class values of New York, on the one hand (as seen in “Broadway Danny Rose,” for example), and the pretensions of New York high society, on the other. In this rags-to-riches tale, though, the themes collide, and the fireworks are terrific. Eschewing any great insight and profundity, Allen gives us something that is, to borrow the director’s description of himself, “just thin and fun.”

And coming at this point in time, it is a therapeutically simple pleasure. It offers so much peace of mind that you just want to walk into the movie and stay there forever, in a New York City where fraud and marital tiffs are the worst that can happen, and the rest of the time is spent racing to see who can get in the wisecracks first.

Allen plays Ray, a former thief now reformed into a dishwasher but dreaming of one last scam to make him rich forever. Ray’s manicurist wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), disses his plans and bad-mouths his friends (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow and Jon Lovitz) but nonetheless consents to fork out the couple’s entire savings of $6,000 so that Ray can rent a small shop, two doors down from a bank. His plan is to dig a tunnel in the basement of this shop, leading to the bank, make the heist and then cover the hole with sandbags or something. To cover their tracks and make sure people don’t get suspicious, Ray orders Frenchy to run a cookie store upstairs. She decides to call it Sunset Cookies.

Frenchy’s cookies attract people in hordes. She limits them to three per customer, and still they keep coming. In the meantime, Ray and his friends don’t know where they’re digging, and a cop gets wind of their plans and demands a cut. Not in the form of a bribe, but as a business deal. (“I’m going to say just one word to you: franchise.”)

So begins the Sunset Farm Corporation, America’s newest and sweetest success story. Ray has more money than he ever dreamed of, and Frenchy is all set to be “patron of the arts” by inviting high society to their new apartment, decorated in the taste of some cheesy mafia don. The problem is, none of them are happy. Ray wants to eat turkey meatballs while watching a ballgame, and Frenchy is embarrassed by his lack of ambition.

Now that they’re wealthy, Frenchy hankers for taste and class. Enter David (Hugh Grant), a sleazy art dealer oozing Cambridge pedigree from every pore, who suavely agrees to give Frenchy “life lessons.” He’s after her money, Frenchy is after “cul-cha,” and Ray just wants his old life back. By mid-movie, he moves out of their swanky apartment and takes up with Frenchy’s cousin May (Elaine May). In a huff, Frenchy accompanies David to Europe.

Although Allen pokes fun at the inconvenience of wealth (Ray whines that he has to eat things like “sparrows on a bed of lettuce”) and the all-too-predictable course people take when they suddenly come into a lot of money (mass-manufacture of what had once been handbaked cookies, obsession with French “Louis-something” furniture, etc.), he’s also unsparing about Ray’s attitude toward life and his wife — as May flatly tells him: “A woman needs to feel elegant. You should know there’s more to life than turkey meatballs.” In the end, Ray and Frenchy manage to strike a balance between modest means, spiritual satisfaction and marital bliss.

Ullman is superb as the fast-talking Frenchy, a typical New Yorker whose sharp tongue is just a front for warm intentions. To Ray’s friends she says things like “Compared to you guys, this chair is a genius!” but she still cooks for them, bakes for them and later appoints them board of directors for her company. Drawing a fine contrast to Frenchy is Grant’s David — his shy niceties camouflaging his vain and calculating nature. Grant, who defined his career by playing naive and likable English chaps, has switched tracks to become the independent woman’s nightmare (see also “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) and is doing splendidly.

The real wonder, though, is Allen, who even in his 60s, still casts himself as a man in pursuit of “the woman” — often perplexed by her but wanting only to make her happy and tell her she’s great. In “Small Time Crooks,” he alternates between wanting to please his wife and yelling at her “to take a hike,” which is a sacred state of marriage only the most adept at love can hope to achieve. Obviously, Allen knows all about it.