SMALL TIME CROOKS (2000) – One-half of a great Woody Allen comedy

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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.
imagesAllen 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.

images (1)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.

images (2)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.

Make me laugh!

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This week, one of my favorite bloggers, TV scripter and novelist Ken Levine, asked: “Can comedy stand the test of time?” As an example, Levine cited Steve Martin’s once-famous catchphrase, “Ex-cuse ME!”, and posited that a current teenager wouldn’t have any idea why someone from the 1970’s would laugh at such a thing. Levine also mentioned how the Marx Brothers enjoyed a 1960’s and ’70s revival that seems to have dimmed down considerably since then.

Well, can comedy stand the test of time? My answer is:

If it’s comedy that you’re still talking about, then yes.

I grew up in that hallowed era of the 1970’s. All around me, on TV and in revival movie theaters, were testaments to the eternal comedic appeal of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy. Then I got to witness the budding of comic masters such as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Monty Python.

These days, my college-age son and daughter do the usual scoffing at their old man’s pop-culture tastes, yet they’ve managed to pick and choose things they like from that era. My daughter has enjoyed Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and the musical version of The Producers with me. I’m not the Cheech & Chong fan that I was as a teenager, but my son definitely enjoys their streetwise humor. And while neither of my kids is a die-hard Monty Python fan like me, my son is head over heels over Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and my daughter has let down her guard enough to let the “Fish Slapping Dance” and “Argument Clinic” sketches make her laugh like crazy.

Conversely, the kids enjoy comedy that doesn’t terribly interest me, such as Amy Schumer (daughter) and Louis C.K. (son). I’ve watched some of their work and don’t particularly “get” them, but I can appreciate why the next generation does.

The thing is, there’s nothing more subjective than comedy. If someone enjoys the same comedy that you do, you have had some measure of bonding with that person. And if someone doesn’t pick up on a comedian who makes you tear up with laughter, expect the very definition of “stony bitch face” from that other person.

Anyway, I’m in my mid-fifties, and I’ve long given up on trying to apologize for or rationalize my tastes in pop culture. Like any comedy fan, I like what I like, and if you don’t agree…

Well, ex-CUUUUUUUSE ME!!!!!!!!

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An examination of Sandy Bates in Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES (1980)

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The following is my entry is the “White Swan/Black Swan Blogathon,” being held through Apr. 30 by the movie blog Cinematic Corner. Click on the banner above, and read bloggers’ takes on movie and TV characters with seemingly dual personalities!

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For this blogathon, I chose Sandy Bates for two reasons:

  1. Woody Allen is the first to tell anyone who will listen that his films are not autobiographical. Then he leaves overt autobiographical clues in his films that are just begging viewers to find them. Stardust Memories is the most obvious example.
  2. This movie was so polarizing that the White Swan/Black Swan motif might be the only fitting way to examine it and its main character.

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Stardust Memories is modeled after Italian director Federico Fellini’s autobiographical 8 ½ (1963), in which a Fellini-like, successful film director reconsidered his life and lovers. In Woody Allen’s version, Allen plays Sandy Bates, a filmmaker who wants to put his serious take of life on film, a stand that is dismissed by his movie-executive bosses as well as most of his fans, who make a point of preferring his “earlier, funnier” comedies. The movie’s two main plot points are:

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1)  Bates is being honored at a weekend film retrospective similar to those that were once held by film critic Judith Crist (who does a brief cameo in the movie). We see, variously, clips from Bates’ (i.e., Allen’s) “earlier, funner movies,” and Bates being heckled and tormented by a variety of strange fans. (One fan asks for an autograph and says, “Would you please sign it, ‘To Phyllis Weinstein, you ungrateful, lying bitch’?”)

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2) In his mind, Bates is juggling past, present, and potential relationships with three women. Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) is a French-speaking women who has taken her two children and left her husband to be with Bates. Bates meets Daisy (Jessica Harper) at the retrospective, regards her as an oasis of sanity in the craziness of the retro weekend, and flirts with her throughout the movie. The woman with whom Bates is primarily obsessed is Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), Bates’ beautiful but highly neurotic ex-lover, who has since been committed to a mental institution.

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The entire movie is, rather claustrophically, told from Bates’ point of view. The fans who helped to make Bates’ career are shown visually as large-nosed and ugly, and mentally as either ignorant or pretentious. Bates’ movie-executive bosses are shown as ignoramuses who don’t appreciate Bates’ move into serious dramas.

(Allen has spoken little publicly about the commercial and critical drubbing of his first foray into drama, Interiors [1978]. Allen’s depiction here of the unfeeling movie execs would seem to be Allen’s most obvious answer to Interiors’ critics.)

No matter what the setting, the deck is always stacked in favor of Bates. At the retrospective, he is unfailingly patient to an ever-escalating scale of crazy fans who want something from him (an autograph, a charity appearance, and in one scene in the movie, a one-night stand).

When clips from Bates’ comedies are shown at the retrospective, we hear laughter that doesn’t sound pleasurable, more like hyenas’ howlings. It’s as if Woody Allen is saying, “I’ve moved on from my comedies, well-done though they are. Why do these Philistines continue to laugh at them?”

One scene shows Allen visiting his sister (Anne DeSalvo) in New Jersey. When the sister opens her front door, Bates is greeted by another gathering of smudgy-faced people — in this case, some women who have gathered for his sister’s exercise class. One woman’s face is beaten, and the sister tells how this woman was repeatedly raped. Yet the rape victim, a heavy-set woman, is inexplicably wearing a T-shirt labeled “Sexy.” Allen seems to be eerily suggesting that this self-obsessed woman got what she deserved.

All of this culminates in a scene where Bates loudly and whinily tries to escape from the shrieking harpies at the retrospective, only to be confronted by a fan who says, “Mister Bates? You know, I’m your biggest fan,” before shooting Bates. There follows a long scene where Bates is transported to the afterlife (only to be harassed by more people who dislike his serious movies) before we find out that the shooting incident was merely a fantasy Bates was having before he collapsed from nervous tension.

The movie’s finale seems to make an attempt at a happy ending: Daisy is never heard from again after the shooting “incident,” and Bates has purged Dorrie from his mind and is content to settle for domestic bliss with Isobel and her bratty kids. Yet Allen has one more (dirty) trick up his sleeve. It turns out that the previous 90 minutes was actually Sandy Bates’ newest movie, about which the “real” movie’s stars and fans make still more derisive comments at movie’s end.

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Not surprisingly, critics and moviegoers alike reacted harshly to Allen’s depiction of them as uneducated savages, and Stardust Memories barely earned back its $10 million budget at the box office. Allen’s major fan base seems to have parted ways with him at this point, and he spent the 1980’s making quirky movies that did their major business overseas, before he again hit box-office gold with Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

Since 1980, Allen has repeatedly stated that Stardust Memories was never intended as a poison-pen letter to his fans, and that even if he really disliked his fans that much, he would never explicitly say so in a movie. Yet the evidence against this benign viewpoint is Stardust Memories in its entirety.

Critic John Simon might have been onto something when he quoted Sandy Bates’ one-liner from the movie: “You can’t control life, you can only control art. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.” Simon riposted, “I say there is no doubt about it — he just has difficulty figuring out which is which.”

R.I.P., Groucho Marx (1890-1977)

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I have always resented the way that Elvis Presley stole Groucho Marx’s thunder by dying three days ahead of Groucho just for the publicity.

Now, I really do know that Elvis didn’t do it on purpose. And I’m sure Elvis, if he’d had a choice, might have wanted to grace this Earth a little longer. (As for Groucho in his 1977 state, I’m not so sure.)

But it is a fact that after all possible superlatives were used to describe Elvis on the day of his death (Aug. 16, 1977), by the time Groucho kicked off, the press seemed to be fresh out of tributes. TIME magazine — who had allowed The Marx Brothers to grace their cover 45 years previously — gave Groucho’s obit a measly paragraph of text. Woody Allen responded by writing a letter to TIME’s editor asking, “Is it my imagination, or were you guys a little skimpy with the Groucho Marx obituary?”

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But in the end, it all evened out. While Elvis has had hundreds or thousands of people making a living by imitating him, only one person has done justice to Groucho — Frank Ferrante (above), whose flawless impersonation of Groucho graces hundreds of live performances across the nation each year.

And happily, we still have all of the work that Groucho left behind for us to savor. Humorous books for which he took great pride in claiming authorship. His huge body of radio and TV work, much of it revolving around his immortal (in reruns, anyway) quiz show “You Bet Your Life.” And the dry humor and trenchant sarcasm of his movie appearances, with and without his famous brothers (though the best movies include his siblings).

If Groucho’d had a say in it, he probably would have indeed claimed that Elvis was just trying to upstage him in death. And then, most likely, he would have sung this: