Small Time Crooks begins hilariously and then spends its last half making us feel guilty for the laughs we had in the first half. Perhaps it had been so long since Allen had done an all-out comedy that he wasn’t able to keep up the momentum to the movie’s end.
Allen plays Ray, one of the titular characters, as a variation on his schleppy booking agent in Broadway Danny Rose. His clothing is only slightly louder than his complaining, and he gesticulates wildly, as though his hands have minds of their own. And Tracey Ullman, as Ray’s social-climbing wife Frenchy, certainly seems a perfect match for him. (Allen doesn’t have much originality in creating tacky characters — when in doubt, he throws on the plaids and has everyone screech their lines.)
Ray, a reformed criminal, plots a scheme to return to his life of crime. There’s a vacant building a couple of doors down from a bank, and he figures he can use the building as a front so he can tunnel to the bank and grab the bank’s loot. The front will be a shop for Frenchy’s homemade cookies, while Ray and his henchmen drill underneath the shop.
Comparisons to Allen’s first feature, Take the Money and Run, are inevitable and (for the first part of the movie, at least) worthy. Ray’s blunders with his no-brain partners (Michael Rapaport and “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Jon Lovitz) are a slapstick delight. And when their (mis)fortunes take an unexpected turn for the richer, the movie seems meant to live up to its early promise.
But then, after a half-hour of making fun of these lowlifes, the movie asks us to take their plight seriously — if you can call getting unexpectedly rich a plight. Frenchy hires a stuffy art curator (Hugh Grant) in hopes of furthering her education (shades of Annie Hall). Ray, feeling Frenchy drifting away from him, starts to fall for her dimwitted cousin (Elaine May). And the movie audience suddenly feels the movie’s sense of fun drifting away.
Why the movie suddenly dismisses the bungling bankrobber trio is a mystery, but dismiss them it does, as though they were a plot device which Allen quickly tired of. The cookie-shop front might have been funnier if Frenchy’s creativity with cookies benefited everybody except for Ray. (A similar premise propelled Albert Brooks’ The Muse [released a year before this movie], and Crooks even borrows Muse‘s plot device of the wife finding unexpected success with making cookies.)
Instead, the movie replaces its prime source of laughs with schlocky pathos. The camera closes in on Frenchy’s face when she realizes her rich friends have been making fun of her, and suddenly the plot goes from the highs of The Muse to the lows of “The Flintstones.”
The cast wavers all over the place. Allen is in his slapstick element, doing physical schtick he hasn’t attempted in ages and pulling it off. And Lovitz and Rapaport are delightfully dumb. On the other hand, Hugh Grant’s role is underwritten, and Elaine May’s is just plain not written. Allen seems to have a thing for dumb brunettes, and May adds nothing to the role except catatonia.
By this time in his career, Allen seemed so fearful of being reminded of his “earlier, funnier movies” that each time he tried for purely funny, he seemed a little more removed from the source. Crooks has its fair share of laughs (though more at the start than at the end), but finding comedy in silly characters and then asking us to feel unearned sympathy for them plays less like early Allen and more like latter-day Jerry Lewis.