For me it’s scary, but if you’re under twenty and you don’t watch "old" movies, the odds you’ve seen a great Woody Allen film are close to nil. That’s not to say he’s been horrible for the past few years, he hasn’t, it’s just that he hasn’t really hit the heights he once hit with regularity. Unfortunately, Small Time Crooks continues this trend by finishing the day as simply an above-average comedy.
It’s got a fine slapstick premise, three bumbling crooks (played with equally blinding stupidity by Woody, Michael Rappaport, and Tony Darrow) have hatched a scheme to rob a bank by tunneling from a vacant storefront two doors down. They set up a front in the store (a cookie shop run by Tracey Ullman, who plays Woody’s wife) and the fun begins as the inept foursome (they’re joined by John Lovitz) try to put the plan into action. Pretty much the first half of the film centers around this hair brained scheme and it’s the strongest part of the whole package. Featuring funny performances all around (add Elaine May to the mix) and a nice dose of inept criminal shenanigans I found this section to be a nice return to the Woody Allen of old. It’s not as sharp as some of the early classics (Take the Money and Run, Love and Death, etc.), but I still found myself laughing out loud more often than not.
That’s the first half of the film. The second half, inexplicably, turns into something of a fish out of water story as Ullman and Allen find themselves thrust into New York’s high society. Shedding many of the heist section’s bumbling characters, this second part (which seems like a completely different film) replaces them with Hugh Grant (who is good) and very little else. It’s still funny, but not nearly as much as the first half and, due to the stale premise, it’s not as clever. Elaine May provides the only real highlight of this latter part of the film as her character is thankfully brought more to the forefront.
All in all this is an uneven, but funny film. It’s somewhat light, it’s paced strangely and, as I mentioned it seems to be two films joined together with duct tape, but overall it’s not an unpleasant trip to the theater. As for the cast, Michael Rappaport and Elaine May are probably the two highlights for me. For what it’s worth, Rappaport has slowly grown on me. I used to, quite honestly, hate him, but over the last few years he’s slowly crept over to the good side of my personal ledger. So much so, the fact that he was swept away in the last half of the film came as something of a disappointment. As for May, even if the rest of the film was horrible and her performance somehow stayed the same I have a feeling I’d still find myself recommending this film. She’s that funny.
This article was originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in May 2000.