Contrary to the claim in DreamWorks's ads and trailers, Small Time Crooks isn't really a throwback to the riotous style of Allen's earliest films. Sure, the lead character, Ray Winkler, is an older version of Allen's Virgil Starkwell, the hero of Take the Money and Run, Allen's first film. (We won't count What's Up, Tiger Lily?, his first directorial credit, which was basically a redubbing of a Japanese film.) But the style of the comedy is altogether different. Take the Money and Run and the rest of Allen's pre-Annie Hall movies were precursors of the Airplane! genre, gagfests where jokes trumped all other concerns -- plausibility, character, even the laws of physics. But Allen sticks much closer to the real universe here.
Allen plays Ray, a safecracker whose aspirations far outstrip his intelligence. Since getting out of the slammer, he has been working as a dishwasher in New York City; his loving wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), makes more money as a manicurist. But Ray has his eyes on a neighborhood bank that looks ripe for the robbing. A pizzeria two doors down has just gone bust, and Ray figures it'll be a piece of cake to rent the space, open up a dummy business and dig a tunnel over to the bank. He enlists the aid of two friends -- Denny (Michael Rapaport) and Tommy (Tony Darrow) -- presumably the only two guys in all five boroughs more stupid than he is. He also recruits Benny (Jon Lovitz), an arsonist he knew in prison. Frenchy, clearly the smarter and stronger of the two, doesn't like the plan, but eventually she goes along with it, agreeing to run a cookie store upstairs as a cover. And she brings in her cousin May (Elaine May) to help, despite the fact that May, unbelievably, is even dumber than the guys downstairs.
To everyone's surprise, the cookie store starts doing a huge business. Less than a third of the way through the movie, we leap ahead a year. All the conspirators are now incredibly wealthy, thanks to Frenchy's cookies. But the money goes to Frenchy's head. She aspires to be part of society, to be educated in all the finer things. Ray, for his part, couldn't care less: He's tired of eating escargots and quail eggs and would be happier with a cheeseburger, thank you. Frenchy hires David (Hugh Grant), a charming but not very successful art dealer, to become their tutor in refinement. But when Ray washes his hands of the whole thing, Frenchy starts to fall for David, who, of course, represents everything that Ray isn't.
Small Time Crooks is much closer in tone to Mighty Aphrodite or Radio Days or, most particularly, Broadway Danny Rose. There are no startling human insights or hair-tearing examinations of the agonies of existence. If anything, this is a mild-mannered screwball comedy -- a tribute to lovable losers. In many ways, it has more to do with The Honeymooners -- an association Allen blatantly makes a few times. Ray and Frenchy have a blend of love and contentiousness similar to that of Ralph and Alice Kramden. Like Ralph, Ray is constantly threatening his wife with exaggerated physical violence. Gleason was such a big lovable baby that we always knew it was sheer bluster he'd never act on. Allen may not be nearly as lovable on screen -- not many actors are -- but we know from the start that he's never going to act on his threats, because Frenchy could take him out in one punch. Ullman looks taller and quite a bit more substantial than does Allen.
In fact, one of the minor shocks in the film is just how old Allen looks: His 64 years are quite evident, perhaps all the more noticeable because it's been three years since we've seen much of him. There will doubtless be complaints that once again he's cast himself opposite a much younger woman -- Ullman just turned forty -- but at least this time out his one extramarital flirtation is with May, who is presumably a few years older than he is. (Just how much older is hard to determine; the Internet Movie Database says she was born in 1940, which would mean she gave birth to her daughter when she was nine. Somewhere around 1930 is a better guess.) Actually, May shows her years much less than Allen. She also manages to walk away with nearly every scene she's in. In a story populated almost entirely with dimwits, she creates the grandest dimwit of all. Her character's cheery, well-intentioned obliviousness is irresistible.
Indeed, one of the things that make this film work is the love and sympathy Allen ultimately grants all the dumb characters. Frenchy may be smarter than Ray in many ways, but for much of the film he can see more clearly than she can. Nearly all these misbegotten losers have moments where they display some variety of intelligence; certainly they all show some finer qualities than many of the "smarter" characters.
It is this generosity, together with its Damon Runyon elements and its debunking of the rich, that makes Small Time Crooks feel like an homage to the '30s. In many ways, this could be a Preston Sturges script. Sadly, the central way in which it doesn't resemble Sturges is in the density and quality of the gags. Allen can still write great jokes and great dialogue. The TV ads only hint at the brilliance of the scene in which Lovitz tries to explain to Allen that the latter's prison nickname, The Brain, was meant sarcastically; in the film, it goes on a good deal longer and is a masterpiece of elegant repetition. But the zingers are a bit too sparse and occasionally seem forced, and some of Frenchy's putdowns of Ray feel much too "written" and unnatural.
Small Time Crooks is lovable and touching and a lot of fun, but you can't help but wish it were a little faster and funnier.