Small Time Crooks

Small Time Crooks. Sweetland Films 2000.

Before watching the movie:

From what I’m seeing, this is basically the story of criminals who accidentally go into legitimate business. It also looks like it builds increasing farce until it implodes, and has a focus on letting the actors be zany and possibly improvisational. I always think of Woody Allen as a very script-oriented comedian, but the rest of the cast seem like they could riff.

After watching the movie:

Ray Winkler spent much of his life as a criminal, but went straight after prison until getting the idea to lease an old pizzeria a few doors down from a bank he wants to tunnel into. His wife Frenchy wants nothing to do with the scheme, but gets drafted into selling cookies out of the leased shop as a cover for the tunneling operation. Unfortunately, Frenchy’s cookies are so good, the cookie shop is swamped with customers and Ray’s inept team are soon caught. However, they convince the police officer to let them go in exchange for giving him a piece of the cookie profits, and he suggests to them that they franchise. A year later, the whole gang are the board of directors for the biggest overnight sensation in the country, but Ray and Frenchy are unsatisfied with their obscene wealth. Frenchy wants to learn the refinement and education of the upper class, but Ray just wants to retire to a beach in Florida. Frenchy asks art dealer David to help her learn what she needs to know to fit in with high society, and David sees an opportunity to slide into Ray’s place and get rich.

I think I would’ve enjoyed a movie entirely about the cookie shop and tunneling operation more, but that’s almost prologue to the real story. Ray’s team are funny and play off each other well, but they fade from importance after they go legitimate, even though they’re still among the company leadership. I think that the police officer who tells them to franchise completely disappears even though he got a stake in the company in exchange for his silence. However, the criminal capers ultimately take a back seat to the story about the over-the-hill couple weathering a crisis in their marriage after a windfall.

The dialogue doesn’t feel like improvisational humor really got in, but it does feel more natural than a traditional adherence to the polished writing of a script, which I now recall is pretty normal for Woody Allen. While it doesn’t seem like improvised jokes were encouraged, the tone and tempo feel like they used the script as guidelines for getting from A to B and just played with the scenes. It gets just enough of a rambling quality to make it funny and natural without getting in the way of the story.

I feel like I got a different movie than I was promised. It’s not really about being inept criminals distracted by cookies, it’s about former criminals changed by suddenly owning a multimillion dollar legitimate business.  It’s as quirky and intimate as most Woody Allen comedies, but I was looking forward to the farce.

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