Small Time Crooks is the only example of a comedy that I can recall with a farce first half and a social satire second. This is one of the most unforgettable Woody Allen films with dry lines filling up surreal situations more than adequately in the beginning, but then the plot turns into something more serious, meaningful, honest and somewhat tragic during the second half. The first half is a flat-out comedy, the funny dialogue keeps coming and the pace is fast, building up promisingly. Suddenly, however, the story changes direction, a number of different twists occur and the overall atmosphere transforms completely. Small Time Crooks is one of the highest points in Woody Allen’s career. Cleverly written, brilliantly played and most notably, with a clear message in favour of the working class and against pretentiousness.
The film revolves around a bunch of simple-minded friends wanting to get rich fast and easily by robbing a bank. Mastermind Ray Winkler (Woody Allen) lays out the plan for the big job and the small time crooks rent out the store next door from the bank as a front in order to dig a tunnel leading into the bank. The shop is decided to become a cookie bakery which will be run by Ray’s wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman). So while she’s baking and selling and actually making a living for her and her husband, he’s struggling in the basement, trying to dig his way to the bank, with his highly unintelligent friends. In the second part things suddenly change, the couple and their friends become rich and that is, as it seems, when the real problems start.
The cast is very cleverly put together, including Jon Lovitz as Benny, Michael Rapaport as Denny, Tony Darrow as Tony and Elaine May as May Sloane. The characters are poor and uneducated but edgy, colourful and fun and all the actors seem to be in their element, each of them able to keep up alongside comedy-genius Woody Allen. Tracey Ullman offers a highly believable and touching performance that quickly moves from pure comedy to a difficult and sad fall from grace and the switch is handled smoothly and realistically. She single-handedly carries the hard job of getting the movie’s working-class message across to an audience that has been focusing up until that point on getting the fast-paced jokes, admiring her as a comedienne and laughing out loud before things slow down and take a very different, almost tragic and unexpectedly meaningful turn.
And the same should be said about Elaine May who portrays Frenchy’s cousin, May Sloane. The actress is very rarely seen in front of the camera and has opted to stay behind it, writing and directing, for the biggest part of her film career. Although she has brought us The Birdcage and Primary Colors, we can’t help but regret not seeing her acting in more comedies, especially the last twelve years. In her last-to-date performance in Small Time Crooks, the actress delivers a character utterly confused, slightly dumb, naïve, shaky, panicky, but also kind, patient and tolerant.
This is one of the very few times that love and sex are not discussed in a Woody Allen film and people who act out of need for them are not mocked and played with. In Small Time Crooks Woody Allen goes for a storyline way out of what has proven to be ordinary for him and deals with money, its importance to a happy marriage and to feeling good about oneself. Extremely funny during its first half and more heavily satirical throughout the second part, the film changes atmosphere unexpectedly and takes its audience from laughing out loud to being forced to realize that money is far from everything. The move is done brilliantly thanks to yet another flawless Woody Allen script and a cast of comedy sensations.
Small Time Crooks at IMDb
Small Time Crooks at Wikipedia
Small Time Crooks at Rotten Tomatoes
Small Time Crooks (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb
Woody Allen at Wikipedia
Woody Allen official website