Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Small Time Crooks (2000)

Then The copy of Small Time Crooks I’ve watched then and now was bought at Music Zone in Williamson Square, Liverpool. For younger readers, Music Zone was to the early noughties what Fopp is now – good dvd and cds from alternative genres and distributors at unbelievable prices. Ironically Fopp attempted to rescue Music Zone before going to the wall themselves and were later bought out by HMV. Always a bigger fish. In terms of the music retail business, it was the canary in the cage for this recession (Tower Records UK and Andy’s Records being similar terminal birds for previous economic dips). Zavvi was quick to follow.

Now Not too long ago I was talking about this endeavour to a friend and said that I was soon to reach the noughties. “Ah – the wall.” He said grinning. I laughed it off but sadly we’ve reached the millennium and Woody makes his first proper stumble. The reasons are quite complex and I’ll talk about those in a minute, but it’s the first occasion when I’ve become bored and tetchy and frustrated. This must be what it feels like when London marathon runners hit the cobbles of Cutty Sark and realise they have nineteen miles to go, or in my case eight or so films.

The film opens very well, hilariously in fact. We’re introduced to Woody’s character Ray, one of those small time crooks who has a big scheme – he’s going to rob a bank by renting a shop just up the street and digging underneath the shops between. His wife, Frenchy (Tracy Ullman) is initially reticent but is eventually convinced, she loves him and trusts him. His pals Denny (Michael Rappaport) and Tommy (Tony Darrow) are in on the deal and eventually fellow jail bird Benny (John Lovitz in a low key performance for him) who they have to enlist because he’s rented the shop from under them.

There’s an Only Fools and Horses vibe to this opening section. Like Del Boy, Ray is apparently the clever one (he’s the one with the glasses anyway) and thinks the next scheme will be the one to make them rich. Frenchy, like Raquel, rolls her eyes and is clearly the cleverer of the two and like John Sullivan’s sitcom, it’s the incidentals of the plan which gain in importance to the point of overwhelming everything. Hollywood writer Elaine May turns in a sterling performance as Frenchy’s cousin May, the Trigger of the group whose random approach to logic threatens to derail everything (she continues to be one of the few reasons to continue watching).

This section is hilarious and up there in terms of quality with some of the anecdotes in Radio Days and has elements of The Marx Brothers in its approach to slapstick. The problem is that when one of these random variables leads the couple to become rich, the film makes the same mistake as late Only Fools And Horses in thinking that turning the piece into a class culture clash story equals comic gold. In order to accomplish that, Woody effectively has to become the intellectuals in Interiors and make fun of his underclass characters because they stock their home with vulgar acquirements, don’t know who Tintoretto is or don’t want to sit through an opera.

He does make some attempts at balance. When the English art dealer played by Hugh Grant (that’s Hugh Grant!) takes Frenchy under his wing there are some on the nose references to Pygmalian and a demonstration that his motives might not be entirely honourable. All the rest of the so-called culturally aware figures are interested in is seeing how they can exploit the couple’s new found wealth in arts projects, take advantage of their minimal understanding of the arts. But too often, and this is unlike Woody, he goes for the easy joke, the mobile phone ringing in a classical music concert, financial ignorance at inopportune moments and the farce of being chased through rooms.

There’s nothing wrong with the way the film is shot; Fei Zhao in his second and last work for the director offers some beautiful compositions, not least an early magic hour shot taking in the roof of an apartment and the city which is as good as anything Gordon Willis produced in the seventies. The performances are superb even as the script is falling apart with only Grant looking slightly incongruous and out of sorts at a moment when he was at the peak of his fame largely reacting to whatever Ullman and Allen are doing. It’s simply that, when the caption One Year Later appears, the film falls apart and Woody seems as unsure in his writing as he’d been in years.

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