Small Time Crooks isn't just minor Woody Allen. It's minuscule Woody Allen. It harks back not to the great, anarchic "early funny" movies like Bananas and Sleeper but even farther back, into the milquetoast recesses of Take the Money and Run. Allen began his moviemaking career taking very small baby steps, and now, perhaps to draw a wider audience, or maybe just to blow a few bubbles in between his usual deep-breathing exercises, he's gone back to pure piffledom. Which would be fine if at least the piffles had some bounce. Small Time Crooks is mildly enjoyable and has its scattered, hilariously aberrant moments, but mostly it's cranked up and overextended, a one-joke movie predicated on a not particularly fragrant joke.
Woody Allen is playing Ray Winkler, a whiny two-bit swindler who recently spent some time in jail and now works as a dishwasher. His brassy wife, Frenchy, played by Tracey Ullman, used to be an exotic dancer known as the Topless Wonder. She indulges -- just barely -- his harebrained get-rich-quick schemes while churning out his favorite meal, spaghetti and turkey meatballs. Allen presents these two as a screw-loose variant on the Kramdens from The Honeymooners; she rolls her eyes at him, and he threatens to clonk her. When Jackie Gleason did this sort of thing with Audrey Meadows, the hostilities at least had some flint. The Kramdens were playing out a marital comedy of prole dissatisfaction, and the contrast between Ralph's raucous grandiosity and Alice's stern, level gaze was essential to the joke. We were never put in the position of feeling superior to their working-class gripes or their itch for upward mobility; we weren't congratulated for having better taste than the Kramdens. The show was too juicy and knockabout to be playing those high-low games. Small Time Crooks makes it a point to play up Ray and Frenchy's proletarian bad taste, and when they strike it rich, their taste, especially hers, goes from bad to worse while we are encouraged to snicker.
In order to make this tired gag work, you need a filmmaker with a deep affinity, even affection, for both schlockiness and the fineries of the upper crust (a filmmaker like, say, Preston Sturges). But Woody Allen's comic affinities are somewhere in between, which is perhaps why the working-class humor in this film seems so labored and the hoity-toity comedy so routine. His way of ribbing the Winklers and their crook cronies, played by Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, and Tony Darrow, is to have everybody speak with a Noo Yawk accent a mile wide. At the opposite extreme, he can't fully satirize the Winklers' nouveau-richeness because he doesn't care enough to be drawn in by it. He doesn't want to be tainted by it. And so what we get are excruciating close-ups of the couple's Park Avenue penthouse with its bronze lilies on the winding staircase; we get jokes involving truffles and fey chefs and tony cocktail parties. All of this succeeds, on a fairly low level, but Allen doesn't give nouveau-richeness its comic due; he doesn't show us how even a grouch like Ray might succumb to gaudiness. Hugh Grant plays a swank operator who is supposed to tutor the Winklers in the finer things, and you look forward to some classic scenes on the order of the sequence in Silver Streak where Richard Pryor taught Gene Wilder how to be "black." But Allen won't entertain the notion that Ray might have anything to learn from this snoot. Money doesn't change Ray. Nothing does. This may be an admirable characteristic in a man, but it doesn't do much for a comic hero.
The best reason to catch Small Time Crooks is for the occasional actors' grace notes, most of them supplied by Elaine May, as Frenchy's addled cousin May. Despite Allen's vaunted reputation for casting the best actors, he has an annoying habit of employing them as glorified bit players; it's like sitting down to a full-course meal and getting fobbed off with hors d'oeuvre. (I'm still recovering from the now-you-see-her-now-you-don't cameo by Blythe Danner in Husbands and Wives.) I was afraid this sort of thing was going to happen with Elaine May in Small Time Crooks, because she appears early only to disappear for a long stretch. Fortunately, she comes back into the picture and gives it an addled warmth. Her May is a blotto kook with a sweet-tempered genius for doing the wrong thing, and yet she sees more clearly into the ongoing inanities than anybody else. She's a holy fool as a supremely gifted revue-sketch artist might imagine her.
Elaine May even brings out some fellow feeling from Woody Allen, who tones down Ray's whininess whenever she's around. He's truly responsive in his scenes with her, and suddenly, the movie doesn't seem so minuscule anymore. I recently wrote in these pages that Mike Nichols's absence from the screen since his stunning performance in the 1997 film version of The Designated Mourner has deprived us of a great actor. The same sentiment applies to Elaine May, who hardly ever performs in films. Maybe it's time for the two of them to work together as actors again, in the movies.