Saturday, January 31, 2015
Small Time Crooks—Woody Allen Does it Again, Differently
But he doesn’t. In SMALL TIME CROOKS, he channels THE HONEYMOONERS, MY FAIR LADY, crime caper movies and even a little Guy De Maupassant to great effect. It’s not HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, and it’s not ANNIE HALL. It’s not a sober meditation on crime like MATCH POINT or CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. It’s not even much like TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, one of his early efforts, which poked fun at those documentary style dramas about the lives of criminals, and had what to me is one of the greatest slapstick scenes ever—the scene that shows Allen as a young, incipient (and insipid and incompetent) delinquent trying to play the cello in a marching band.
I tell people about that scene, and they look at me like maybe I should go back on my medication. Maybe you just have to be a Woody Allen fan. Something about the guy just makes me laugh. Early in the movie, Allen, who plays an ex-con named Ray who has given up burglary to wash dishes and lives with his wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), who was once a stripper and now does nails, comes home one day to find Frenchy watching TV, ooh-ing and aah-ing over one of those shows about the British Royals and all their wealth and supposed class. Look at those clothes, she says, and he replies, “don’t you know those kings and queens get everything wholesale?”
Pretty soon Ray is planning to rob a bank with a bunch of the dumbest bank robbers ever assembled. One thing Allen loves is the movies, and I love to watch him loving them. He is winking at these other movie genres and at us all through this one, and it is great fun. He takes apart movies like OCEAN’S ELEVEN, which depends on a bunch of masterminds for the success of its plot, by giving us a character (played by Michael Rappaport) who wants to be stylish even as they try to dig a tunnel under a bank vault, and so wears his miner’s helmet, with its guiding light, backwards. When the larcenous crew is playing poker Rappaport folds, only to find out the other guy had only a pair of threes. “I thought you was bluffin’” he says, and this cracked me up too.
The plan to rob the bank falls through, but Ray and Frenchy become rich anyway (I won’t tell you how, but this is great fun too). Then the movie becomes a spoof of MY FAIR LADY. Frenchy enlists the Hugh Grant character, David, to teach her to be classy. She’s convinced class is something that transcends money. She’s not a cynic like me, who believes that it is money that gives you class, and not the other way around. I think the idea that you have some kind of moral and intellectual superiority that led to you unerringly to your wealth is a myth that the rich foisted on us. And the idea that you can be classy without money is a crock, too. You can be the classiest guy in the world and you won’t hobnob with those classy types unless you have big bucks or are willing to be their lap dog. And it is ultimately the rich who are the arbiters of “taste.” It’s art only if some wealthy nincompoop is willing to spend money on it, after all.
OK, so now that we have established what my opinion is on the whole thing, back to the movie. As you would expect, Frenchy falls for David, who is a shallow type just looking to make a killing. If Frenchy had less money, he would be considered a gigolo, but when a guy pimps himself out to a really rich woman, he gets to be known as a companion or escort.
The plot takes a lot of twists and turns which are in themselves delightful. And Ray, through it all, is a low-brow kind of guy, liking nothing better than to bet on the horses and have some Chinese food and watch old movies. He is an average guy, a Joe six pack, and he doesn’t care that he is. The class humor here is also great. Frenchy starts to read the dictionary to improve her word power, which leads her to use words in ways that make everyone cringe (except her) and when Ray is told that the apartment house they are looking at belonged to Henry James, he says “really, he was married to Betty Grable, wasn’t he?”
There is even some pathos involved. Frenchy’s sister May (played by Elaine Mae) tells Ray, after Frenchy dumps him, that while there is something to Ray’s objection that Frenchy is too concerned with having class, he is not concerned enough. Ray is heartbroken, but happy to not have to do all that rich stuff. When Frenchy had asked him to accompany her to Europe to look at churches, opera houses, and ruins, his response was “what are you, a stroke victim?”
Throw in a slapstick scene where Ray tries to steal a socialite’s necklace and you’ve got a great movie. Elaine Mae steals away the scenes she appears in with her deadpan delivery of lines and the loopily stricken look she has on her face. The humor is broad, and might not have been the kind that the upper crust types in the movie would have liked, but I loved them. On a more subtle level, May is kind of a wise fool, in that she knows her own heart, even as she knows virtually nothing else. One of the funniest lines in the movie comes when May, trying to cover for Woody and her being in a rich socialite’s bedroom (Chi Chi Potter, great name, played by a magnificently upper-crusty Elaine Strich), says that she has just had a fainting spell, that she has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but it could also be Ebola or Mad Cow Disease.
So Ray and Frenchy lose it all, or they don’t, and get back together, or they don’t. The fun is in not knowing, and I am not telling. But I will say that Ray is convincing as a ham-and-egg kind of guy that really loves his wife. He knows maybe she is too good for him, and he is afraid of how much he loves her. His love for her is so deep it unmans him, frightens him, and it is what makes him bluster and roar at her while she just laughs, knowing she need never doubt that love. I think this dynamic is what endeared people to the HONEYMOONERS so much (although the threats of domestic violence have not aged well). Ray doesn’t have a refined sensibility, doesn’t pursue the sublime, or even know what the word means (maybe something a little less tangy than lime?), but he nevertheless feels a fine and rare love for Frenchy.
It’s all been done before, the “to-the-moon-Alice” thing, and the Rex Harrison/Eliza Doolittle thing, and class has been explored in movies both deadly serious and wildly funny, but I’ve never seen them all tackled in one movie, a movie that pokes fun at the movies that inspired it, but also is clearly in love with those movies. It reminds me of the episode where Ralph Kramden gets his back up over what someone is saying about Norton. The interlocutor reminds Ralph that he himself does not speak of Norton in glowing terms, and Ralph replies “what I say about Norton and how I feel about him are two different things.”
© 2015 Mike Welch