A tedious, uninspired grab-bag of recycled Woody Allen clichés, "Small Time Crooks" was to have marked a return to the zany antics of such early classics as "Take the Money and Run," placing Allen more closely in line with the commercial sensibilities of his latest patron studio, DreamWorks. And for roughly 30 minutes, the film shows promise with petty thief-turned-dishwasher Ray (Allen) coaxing his one-time stripper wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) into supporting his latest get-rich-quick scheme: to rent a newly vacant pizza shop and turn it into a cookie store which Frenchy will run as a front while Ray and his gang tunnel from the basement into the vault of an adjacent bank. It's a very funny plan, particularly when populated with Ray's dysfunctional mob of misfit hoods (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, Jon Lovitz). A bizarre turn of events, however, has Frenchy's cookies becoming explosively popular, so much so that within a year of their attempted heist, they find themselves legally wealthy beyond their wildest illegal dreams.
Ordinarily, this kind of "Beverly Hilbillies" twist would suggest even greater things to follow. Unfortunately, Woody chooses to change gears completely, dropping the uproariously engaging trio of Lovitz, Darrow and Rapaport out of the picture entirely and shifting focus to the marital problems of a couple torn apart by the demands of high society.
It's hard to know just what to make of the shift in tone and narrative, for either storyline might have made for a respectable movie on its own. Stitching such disparate sensibilities together in one film, however, seems a sure recipe for confusion, apathy and even anger on the part of audiences expecting either one or the other.
It's obvious, too, that Allen is not particularly enamored of the material. His own performance is noticeably automated and predictable--far more than usual--too often relying on jokes that are so carelessly obscure that even die-hard fans may not get them. What helps sustain the film is Allen's workmanlike professionalism as a director, extracting fine work from supporting performers and collaborators alike. Cinematographer Zhao Fei, who previously worked with Allen on "Sweet and Lowdown," does some luminous work here, as does veteran writer/director Elaine May ("Ishtar," "Primary Colors") in a rare acting turn as Frenchy's hilariously half-witted cousin May. Starring Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, Elaine Stritch, Hugh Grant and Tony Darrow. Directed and written by Woody Allen. Produced by Jean Doumanian. A DreamWorks release. Comedy. Rated PG for language. Running time: 90 min