After thoroughly enjoying Woody Allen’s latest lightweight comedy, a friend said something that makes it harder for me to recommend it. He pointed out, correctly, that the movie has no third act. It just ends. The structure is sloppy and incomplete.
That doesn’t mean I suddenly enjoyed the movie less. I still found Allen’s comedy to be as funny as any of his recent comic successes such as Everyone Says I Love You and Manhattan Murder Mystery.
Did You Notice?
Ray (Woody Allen) is a small time crook who gets a brilliant scheme to rent out a shop two doors down from a bank. He’ll set up a front operation, which his wife Frenchie (Tracy Ullman) will operate, and he’ll tunnel his way to the bank. The scheme goes horribly wrong, but Frenchie’s front operation takes off, and soon the small band of crooks is making it big in legitimate business.
The plot is as sparse and as simple as that, which ordinarily would leave a lot to be desired. However, in this case, a wisp of plot is all that’s needed, a simple setting against which Allen’s cast of colorful characters can react and play.
Dumb in Their Own Ways
Each of the funny figures in this movie is dumb in his or her own, unique way.
For example, Allen’s character is blue-collar dumb. He has made a career as a dishwasher. When he was in jail for a crime he botched, the other prisoners sarcastically called him “The Brain,” which he took as a compliment.
Frenchie is low-brow dumb. She wants to be cultured and refined, but her inborn taste is against her. Even with one-on-one lessons in class from Hugh Grant, she can’t seem to master the art of subtlety.
|My husband Otto was dyslexic. The only thing he could spell correctly was his name.|
— Elaine May, as May
Frenchie’s cousin May (played by writer/director Elaine May) is low-IQ dumb. She takes everything at face value. White lies, subterfuge, and personal secrets are all beyond her mental capacity. May delivers some of the funniest lines in the movie with a perfect deadpan.
Just to round things out, Michael Rapaport, in a small role, is “dumb-blond” dumb. He looks up to Ray “The Brain” and is eager to help in Ray’s latest greatest caper. While digging a tunnel he wears his miners’ helmet (complete with lamp) backwards because it looks cool that way.
Allen’s humor in Small Time Crooks is largely verbal. It’s a style of comedy that not many modern filmmakers do well. The Marx Brothers were experts (except for Harpo, of course). But since then it’s been a long, dry spell. Only Woody Allen makes good, solid comedies where most of the jokes are in the dialogue, and this is one of them.
Connoisseurs of well-made film should lower their expectations before going to Small Time Crooks; my friend was right about its structure. But I’d still recommend this film to just about anyone, connoisseur or not.