Future criminals pay attention, this week Video Vault stakes out Woody Allen‘s 2000 crime-comedy Small Time Crooks. This is a very simple and fun movie that I have always enjoyed, but nobody else seems to have seen. Allegedly, it is a remake of 1942’s Larceny, Inc., but Allen has never commented on this. The DreamWorks picture stars Allen along with Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, and Hugh Grant. Michael Rapaport, Jon Lovitz, and Tony Darrow round out the comedic cast.
Former racketeer and current dish-washer, Ray (Allen), convinces his wife, former stripper and current manicurist, Frenchy (Ullman), to use her $6000 savings for a new crime scheme in the opening of Small Time Crooks. The plan is to rent a vacant restaurant space next to the bank, tunnel into the bank, steal the money, and escape to Florida. Frenchy fronts a cookie store while Ray and an incompetent gang of ex-inmates (Lovitz, Rapaport, & Darrow) cartoonishly attempt to dig into the bank vault. The buffoons’ plan takes a turn when Frenchy’s cookies become New York’s hottest dessert craze. A resourceful cop catches them on a botched bank entry but offers to help them franchise the cookie business for a percentage (“his brother has an MBA”). Soon Ray and Frenchy are living a life of unimaginable wealth among Manhattan’s upper class. Their blue collar Jersey history makes them misfits in this new refined society. While Frenchy strives to learn about art, culture, and sophistication, Ray is only interested in eating hamburgers on a Florida beach. Frenchy hires a gold-digging art dealer (Grant) to teach her lessons in high society living, which eventually is the last straw for Ray, who leaves his wife and all the money behind and starts a friendship with Frenchy’s dim-witted cousin May (May). The cookie business goes belly up when their crooked accountants swindle them for every cent, but a final heist attempt brings the couple back together.
With a straight forward plot consisting mostly of comedic situations, this movie is all about performance. Allen plays a version of his typical self, although a delightfully less educated variant. He demonstrates his physical comedy prowess in the final act which mostly consists of botched attempts to steal a bejeweled necklace from a high society party. The entire criminal team is played with irresistibly lovable naivete and almost-innocence. Much of the film’s humor comes from the fish-out-of-water conceit of the couple’s folly assimilation in to the upper class, which definitely has the potential to grow stale, fortunately, Ullman is just too good to let that happen. Her Golden Globe nominated Jersey-fied performance is so believable, charming, and genuine that you cannot help but root for her success. The other stand-out is Elaine May, who portrays ‘dim-witted space cadet’ with award-winning ease. While the plot inherently lends to humor, it is the small actor moments that give it something special. A scene in which Rapaport convinces Allen that it is more fashionable to wear his flashlight helmet backwards while digging under the bank perfectly exemplifies what I love about this movie. Small Time Crooks is a subdued comic gem, a powerhouse showcase of two veteran female comedians, and Allen’s most underrated work. Why am I the only one who has seen it?