Woody Allen’s newest film–his second in less than a year–is a
nostalgia trip for both audience and filmmaker. Those who
have complained that the sad sack writer-director’s recent
pictures haven’t been as funny as his early ones will find
“Small Time Crooks” as mindlessly amusing as anything he’s
ever done; it’s basically a string of one-liners, old-style
gags and eccentric characters, many of them pretty obvious but
still laugh-provoking.

And if the viewers longing for Allen’s return to his form of
the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s are also aficionados of old TV
sitcoms and classic Hollywood farce, so much the better, since
Woody’s script is clearly a homage to some of the best. The
entire piece is set up in imitation of Jackie Gleason’s
“Honeymooners,” especially the episodes dealing with Ralph’s
crazy money-making schemes. Here a hopelessly inept ex-con
named Ray (Allen himself, as the eternal schlemiel he plays so
well) comes up with a scheme to rob a bank by tunneling into
it from a store a couple of doors down the street; his wife
Frenchy (Tracey Ullman, sporting a harsh, braying accent and
blonde fright-wig), sassing him with insults that Audrey Meadows’
Alice would have been proud to mouth, refuses to turn over
their savings to finance the heist. (Ray responds by emptily
threatening to hit her, though he doesn’t say he’ll punch her
to the moon.)

Frenchy ultimately relents, however, and Ray, along with a
trio of lesser Ed Nortons (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow and
Jon Lovitz), begins digging the tunnel (with various missteps,
catastrophes and misdirections, of course), while Frenchy sets
up shop as proprietor of a cookie store as a front. Needless
to say, the guys’ enterprise falls flat, but the cookie operation
is a success. This segment of the flick, which lasts to the
thirty-minute point, seems derived from the now little-
appreciated Edward G. Robinson flick of 1942, “Larceny, Inc.,”
in which the perfect gangster tries the same trick using a
luggage store as his front; but circumstances conspire against
him, just as they do Woody and his cohorts.

Just when it appears that the whole of “Same Time Crooks” might
concern this bungled caper, however, the screenplay switches
gears and turns into a sort of “Born Yesterday” with a cynical
streak; Frenchy’s cookie business grows into a franchise
smash, and soon she and Ray are living the high life amidst
snooty New York society types who milk them for donations but
look down on them as untutored boors. Determined to better
herself intellectually, Frenchy links up with a suave art
dealer played by Hugh Grant, who beomes a William Holdenish
tutor to the indecorous dame. Ray, meanwhile, finds himself
happier in the company of Frenchy’s blissfully ignorant cousin
(Elaine May), who shares his simpler tastes. It would be
unfair to reveal too much more about the workings of the plot,
save to say that despite their difficulties Ray and Frenchy
naturally find their way back to one another; and the film
closes, symmetrically, with another verbal reference to “The
Honeymooners” in the hubby’s final words of reconciliation.

The cast seems to have a high time playing this terribly
derivative but still jokey material, and their enthusiasm is
infectious. Allen and Ullman toss subtlety out the window,
but they’re nonetheless winning, and Rapaport, Darrow and
Lovitz savor their lines for all they’re worth; you may be
disappointed when they disappear so early from the story. But
to make up for their absence May gets more and more screen
time, creating an endearing, lovable character who isn’t
believable for a second. Grant is all silky smoothness as
Frenchy’s culture maven, and Elaine Stritch and George Grizzard
have a few bright moments as participants in a third-act
NYC society party.

Your enjoyment of “Small Time Crooks” will depend, at the end
of the day, on your tolerance of the tried-and-true. There’s
nothing on display here that would be out of place on the
evening schedule of the TV Land network, and a lot of the
dialogue and plotting is awfully familiar, even if Allen
does manage the occasional new twist. In Woody’s oeuvre, then,
the picture should be ranked as a mere divertissement; like
Frenchy’s famous cookies, it’s a morsel that’s tasty enough
going down, but doesn’t prove to have much in the way of
nutritional value for the intellect–it lacks the sharper,
brainy humor that marked even Woody’s early comedies, and the
script’s dismissal of the pretentions of the society crowd
in the final reels is especially heavy-handed. Like one
of the better weekly sitcoms, it’s pleasant enough while it
lasts, but, like all such ephemera, it fades quickly from the
memory once it’s over.