I happened to be in New York on vacation when Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks" was released, and the burgeoning young film critic in me thought that was pretty nifty. To see a quintessential New York filmmaker's latest picture on opening day in New York, sitting among actual New Yorkers -- the same type of people depicted in the movie! It was like watching a new "Rocky" movie on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art! Sort of.
Now, if being one of the first people to see a new Woody Allen joint doesn't sound like a great way to spend your vacation, I don't know what to tell you. But I did it, and I eagerly filed a review. Look at me, Mr. Fancy, going to New York and seeing cool New York movies and writing reviews in his spare time! That is what I said to myself.
Unfortunately, this is how it turned out...
What I said then: "Woody Allen has made a career of doing films that critics love and audiences ignore. For the first time in a quarter-century, he may finally have a popular success with 'Small Time Crooks,' by far his most accessible, pleasant comedy in years.... This is a whimsical, light-hearted movie, with almost no point whatsoever... It plays out like a long episode of ['The Honeymooners'].... It’s a little unfortunate mid-way through the movie, when Ray’s friends disappear from the scene.... They’re a fabulous bunch of losers and imbeciles. Their absence, however, is compensated for by the presence of Frenchy’s cousin May (Elaine May), a fantastically dense woman who just might be the most endearing character in the film. She’s certainly the funniest, stealing many a scene right out from under Woody Allen, which is no small feat." Grade: A- [Here's the whole thing.]
If anyone reading this aspires to be a film critic, please listen to me and learn from my mistakes. I'm engaging in this ritual self-humiliation for YOU.
It's not that I was way off-base in praising "Small Time Crooks" -- we'll get to that -- but the tone of the review makes me cringe. I read it now and think: Here's a guy who's trying very hard to sound like he knows what he's talking about.
According to my review, this was Woody Allen's "most accessible, pleasant comedy in years." There's nothing wrong with that opinion, nor was I the only one to express it. The problem is that I'd barely seen any of Woody Allen's recent comedies. Though I'd watched numerous clips and felt reasonably well-versed in Allen's style, the only movies of his that I'd seen in their entirety at that point were the classics "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" and his two most recent ones, "Sweet and Lowdown" and "Celebrity."
In my defense, what I was trying to suggest (but didn't express very well) was that the consensus on Allen's last several movies was lukewarm -- not that I'd seen them myself, but that those who had were less than enthusiastic. The reviews bear that out. "Sweet and Lowdown" (1999), "Celebrity" (1998), "Deconstructing Harry" (1997), "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996), and "Mighty Aphrodite" (1995) all got mixed notices; before that, "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993), and "Husbands and Wives" (1992) had gotten almost all raves. "Small Time Crooks" was a return to form, with a Metacritic score of 69 out of 100.
Still, it was boneheaded of me to call "Small Time Crooks" his "most accessible, pleasant comedy in years" when I had not seen the majority of his comedies from recent years. It was also silly of me to predict he might "finally have a popular success," as if previous Woody Allen movies had generally been financial disasters that nobody saw. They don't make as much money as your big studio blockbusters, but few Allen films have completely tanked, and several in the '70s and '80s were bona fide hits. With a final haul of $17.2 million, "Small Time Crooks" did prove to be Allen's highest-grossing film since "Crimes and Misdemeanors," 11 films and 11 years earlier. But several of his pictures had made quite a bit more than that, too.
Basically, regardless of what I thought of the movie itself, everything else I said in the review was hogwash. Let that be a lesson to you: never go to New York or do work when you're on vacation.
The re-viewing: Woody Allen and I part ways on a lot of topics -- I am not nearly the proponent of adopted-daughter-marrying that he is -- but we agree on one thing: you can't go wrong starting a movie with an old-timey song playing over classy-font credits. Just about all his films begin that way, and it never fails to put me in a good mood.
Once the movie actually starts, it's a different story. "Small Time Crooks" pulled me in, though. Tracey Ullman's character, a New Jersey broad named Frenchy, demonstrates the actress' uncanny ability to imitate a wide range of accents and stereotypes. There's little more to Frenchy than her braying voice and tacky wardrobe (bleach-blond hair with dark roots; stretch pants), but Ullman revels in the opportunity to show off her comedy chops.
It's hard to buy Woody Allen as a convicted felon. It's also hard to buy him as Tracey Ullman's husband (and not just because he's 24 years older, though that doesn't help). Yet on second viewing, these facts simply added up to one more way that the movie reminded me of "The Honeymooners." That classic sitcom began as a recurring sketch on Jackie Gleason's variety show, performed by cast members who played other characters too. Allen and Ullman only have to be as believable as, say, Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin in a "Coneheads" sketch. They don't have to be deep, nuanced actors. We get that they're comedians who have put on wigs and costumes to do some shtick.
There's a scene that impressed me from a filmmaking point of view. It's where Ray and Frenchy are on the roof of their apartment building at sunset, having a heart-to-heart about Ray's crazy scheme. They talk about a prior moment in their lives together, another time when they had an important conversation as the sun was setting. The impressive thing is that this scene was shot on an actual rooftop, facing west, using natural lighting, with the sun descending in the distance. None of that is hard to capture from a technical standpoint. What's tricky is shooting the scene within the limited amount of available time. If you screw it up, you gotta wait 24 hours before you can do it again. It's fair to wonder whether the Woody Allen of 2012 would ever put forth that kind of effort for an effect that wasn't absolutely necessary.
Still love Elaine May as Frenchy's sweetly dumb cousin. Allen seemed to know we would be affectionate toward that character: he made sure to give her a love interest by the end of the movie, even though the plot didn't require it. May -- who began her career as an improvisational comedian -- hasn't acted in a movie since this one.
The last line of dialogue is another "Honeymooners" homage: "Sweetheart, you're the greatest."
Do I still love this movie? "Love" is a strong word, but I do still like it. I was afraid a second viewing, 12 years later, would reveal that there's a good reason no one ever talks about it anymore. That didn't turn out to be the case. While I evidently laughed out loud more in 2000 than I did last week, I still found much to enjoy in this simple, sly comedy of manners. Perhaps this would be a good entry point for someone who hasn't seen a lot of Woody Allen and wants to dip a toe in, especially if that person is a would-be film critic. Grade: B+