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Small Time Crooks
2000 - PG - Mins.
Director: Woody Allen
Producer: Helen Robin, Jean Doumanian, Woody Allen
Written By: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rappaport
Review by: John Ulmer
The first half of "Small Time Crooks" is funny, smart, and witty, with lovable characters and a great premise. The second half of "Small Time Crooks" is not quite the same story.

It switches paths early on and tries to go for a morality tale as opposed to a comic tale. Big mistake. Likable characters are shoved aside and literally forgotten amid the chaos of the movie that almost turns into an entirely new flick. It changes tracks and loses its humor and affection.

The beginning of the film introduces us to Ray (Woody Allen), an ex-convict whose lust to rob a bank near his small apartment in New York City takes control of him. His ex-stripper wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), doesn't agree with his ruthless methods which always seem to go awry. But this time Ray is certain his plan will work.

What is it? To purchase an old pizza shop in Manhattan a block down from the bank and then tunnel underground and come up underneath the vault. "I've got blueprints," he says, trying to convince his wife to let him try. Frenchy knows something is up when he brings her chocolates. (Which, in the scene's funniest one-liner, he says are made by the "Belgiumites.")

He assembles a team of knuckleheads to help him, including Jon Lovitz, who bought the pizza shop under an alias so that he could burn it down later on. ("How do you think I got three kids through college?" he asks Ray.)

The beginning scenes that reveal their pure idiotic methods are great; the characters are all attachable and the jokes are all sweet and laughable. But there's a twist--Ray never finishes tunneling under the bank, because the cookie store front above ground (being run by Frenchy) is making profits in the thousands; people line up the entire way down the street just to get a taste of her marvelous cookies.

Some amount of time passes and their corporation grows. The cookie bakery chain grows larger and larger and expands across the nation, putting Frenchy and Ray in the spotlight as some of the richest idiots to ever make it big. Ray's gang of crooks are still there, too--the jobs fit the character. (Lovitz, for example, is now in charge of company insurance.)

But after a very humorous and real documentary about the rising cookie chain, the film drops its co-characters and becomes a preachy morality tale about riches, with the primary message being that you should always be yourself no matter what, and that riches don't equal happiness. How many times has that been done?

Frenchy falls for a suave Englishman living in New York named David (Hugh Grant), a guy whose taste in the fine things of life shines through. Frenchy is inspired: She considers David a mentor, following him around and trying to improve her vocabulary. (She memorizes the dictionary. "I'm almost through 'A' now!")

Ray isn't so happy with his new life. He pines to be rid of his riches, to be able to pull some more heists. He smells a skunk when he sniffs near David and rightfully so; David is trying to milk them of their money. When the company crashes and burns in bankruptcy, David insults Frenchy. (She says, "I asked for a lesson in life. I guess I got one.")

But that's the problem. Morality is a great underplay in films, but it takes over in "Small Time Crooks." When that previously mentioned documentary ends all hearty laughs turn into chuckles. After Ray breaks up with Frenchy to go back to his old career all chuckles turn into grins. Soon the grins are gone, too.

I loved the first forty minutes of "Small Time Crooks," and the film has a nice message at its core, but its flaws take over in the second act. Sticking with the bank heist is ample material to stretch out for a full-length feature film; by entirely switching courses Allen just makes his film a mess. The joy of the premise and lovable characters are all forgotten. What happened to Lovitz and the rest of his crew after the company crashed? The film doesn't bother to tell us.

And that, I am afraid, is this film's primary problem. Besides, the big message is "Be Yourself." The film ends with Ray resorting to robbery again and Frenchy resorting to being nothing at all. With the way people are suing over crazy things like hot coffee at McDonald's in today's age, I'm surprised nobody's tried to sue Woody Allen. I can see it now: "He told me to be myself!" Allen didn't count on the fact that perhaps being yourself means being a homicidal loony, did he?
Movie Guru Rating
Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not.
  3 out of 5 stars

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