Every new Woody Allen movie gives his fans the chance to ask which version of their beloved director they'll see on screen this time. Will it be the vulgar, dyspeptic misanthrope of "Mighty Aphrodite" or "Deconstructing Harry?" Or the tender-natured sentimentalist of "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Sweet and Lowdown?"
With "Small Time Crooks," filmgoers get a little of both. While relatively wholesome compared to his more profane recent films, Allen's 30th movie still exhibits a slightly nasty edge when it comes to his unmoneyed New York neighbors. But he keeps the nastiness enough in check to create a comedy that, while thin, at least has some moments of vintage Allen humor.
One of those moments comes early in "Small Time Crooks," when a group of hapless friends battle a bursting water-main underneath a cookie store. They are down there at the behest of Ray Winkler (Allen), whose wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), is upstairs hawking sweets to hordes of hungry Manhattanites. The cookie company is simply a foil for Ray's real plan: to tunnel from the basement into a nearby bank, which he and his henchmen will rob of a cool $2 million.
It takes Ray a few months -- and a near arrest -- to realize that the shell operation is the real gold mine in his scheme. Frenchy's cookies, which include such sugar-shock inducers as cinnamon cherry and pistachio creme, become the gourmet hit of New York and wind up catapulting the couple into the stratosphere of the nouveau riche. "Small Time Crooks" starts out as Elmore Leonard but winds up as Edith Wharton, as Ray and Frenchy learn the language, rituals and habits of their newfound high-society tribe.
Allen hasn't appeared in one of his movies since 1997's "Deconstructing Harry" (unless you count Kenneth Branagh's impression of him in "Celebrity"), so the opening shot of "Small Time Crooks," of Allen's signature glasses peering over a New York Daily News, will understandably bring sighs of relief to his fans. And he doesn't disappoint here. The anxious nebbish persona we've grown to love is still recognizable underneath Ray's slightly sleazy exterior. But if "Small Time Crooks" returns Allen to his roots in some ways, it nowhere near matches the trenchant, observant portraiture of contemporary Manhattan neurotics in "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan."
Still, "Small Time Crooks" can be recommended even if just for the presence of Elaine May, who turns in her most charmingly ditzy performance since "A New Leaf," and a sumptuously over-the-top production design by longtime Allen collaborator Santo Loquasto. Allen and Loquasto have great fun at the expense of the Winklers, who decorate their new Park Avenue penthouse with literally gilded lilies.
So much fun, in fact, that as "Small Time Crooks" progresses you get the queasy feeling that Allen is doing the intellectual equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. At one point Frenchy endures the humiliation of listening to her new friends snickering behind her back, and by the end of the movie Allen has treated his downmarket heroes with just as much snobby condescension.
He gives them a happy ending, but he deprives them of something much more important: the sort of humanity that made his previous characters so durable and lovable over the years, and which has been so absent of late.
The good news, though, is Allen's prodigious schedule, which has turned out a movie a year since 1982. "Small Time Crooks" may not be big-time Woody, but we always have next year.
'Small Time Crooks'
Starring Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Hugh Grant
Directed by Woody Allen
Rated PG-13 (language)
Running time 95 minutes
Released by Dreamworks
Sun score ** 1/2