Saturday, August 25, 2007

"SMALL TIME CROOKS" & WOODY ALLEN AT THE TURN OF THE MILLENNIUM


Woody Allen hasn’t made a funny movie since 2000’s Small Time Crooks. He’s made one pretty good movie that might prove to lead to new directions in his work (Match Point, 2005.) He’s made one interesting but ultimately failed experiment (Melinda & Melinda, 2004.) And he’s made a slew of utterly dreadful comedies, the worst offenders being Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) and Hollywood Ending (2002). Those two all-time lows for Woody followed the wonderful and light Small Time Crooks, which itself followed the truly marvelous Sweet and Lowdown (1999). I guess I could keep going backwards through Woody’s filmography, but it is to this point that I want to return, Woody at the turn of the new millennium.

Woody has always been restless. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who is about to release his 37th feature in 41 years. The progression of Woody’s directorial career is not, as prevailing critical wisdom would have it, a straight shot from gag-a-minute guy to Bergman-wannabe to shadow-of-his-former-self. It is filled with digressions, experimentation, reversals. Hell, if we’re being honest, it’s filled as equally with tossed-off lightweights as it is personal statements or genre experiments. An oddity like Alice (1990) follows masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Husbands and Wives (1992), a filmmaker’s statement of “where I am right now with my art and my cinephilia,” is followed by the fun, and slight, throwback Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). A triumph like Zelig (1983) or Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) is followed by a trifle like Broadway Danny Rose (1984) or Radio Days (1987).

Here’s the thing: every title listed in the previous paragraph is great. I would happily watch any of them right now. He may have been pretentious and strangely both stylistically stagnant (in his character types) and stylistically all-over-the-place (in his choice of genre) but he never made bad movies. By the mid-90’s, though, Woody seemed to be as bored as many of his viewers (and former viewers) had become. Critics were already knocking him for casting himself as romantic lead opposite a much younger woman like Mira Sorvino (in Mighty Aphrodite, 1995) and he was doing really dumb things like hiring Kenneth Branagh to impersonate him and shooting a movie in black & white for no apparent reason other than total boredom as a director (both in Celebrity, 1998. I do, however, enjoy Leonardo Dicaprio’s self-aware performance as basically himself in that film.)

Woody was also, as the 90’s continued, continuing to experiment with new forms, but he wasn’t doing the safe movies in between any more. He went right from the weird Greek chorus concept in Mighty Aphrodite (which seemed like a bit he would have done back in the Bananas and Take the Money and Run days) to his musical, Everyone Says I Love You (1996), to postmodern meta-ness and pervasive cursing in Deconstructing Harry (1997) to the aforementioned Celebrity and mock-documentary Sweet and Lowdown. And then, ahem, he did Small Time Crooks.

The first striking thing about Small Time Crooks is how, as a pitch, it sounds like a one-note joke: bumbling criminals open a cookie store as a front for a bank robbery. The heist goes sour but hittin’ it rich in the cookie business is oh-so-sweet. But, because he’s brilliant, Woody takes the opportunity to turn the rest of the movie after the turning point punchline into a character study on how sudden wealth affects the marriage of Ray & Frenchy Winkler, paying special attention to the changing character of Frenchy, brilliantly portrayed by Tracey Ullman. It’s hard to knock Elaine May’s turn as Frenchy’s cousin May who is “dumb like a horse or a dog,” for which she won the National Society of Film Critics’ Award for Best Supporting Actress, but if someone were going to win that prize for this film, my vote would’ve gone to Ullman. Her transformation from ex-showgirl Frenchy Fox who does nails for a living and makes constant searing wisecracks, to Francis Fox-Winkler the wannabe patron of the arts is fascinating to watch like a crashing plane full of people you used to like who have recently turned into assholes is fascinating to watch. Funny that way, too.

Small Time Crooks has some interesting formal properties thrown in amidst the humor. There is an absolutely gorgeous rooftop sunset over New Jersey, a shot of Woody and Tracey framed between some clothes hanging on a clothesline, the sunset casually visible or obscured, alternately, throughout. It’s pretty breathtaking, There’s also the pitch perfect mock-60 Minutes sequence, which works equally well for its jokes as for its formal parody. There are also some nice shots that, coupled with Woody’s standard jaunty jazz soundtrack, feel old-fashioned in a nice way. I’m thinking of one shot that uses a zoom lense which is particularly effective: a car pulls up, the gang gets out. Woody goes into the building but Denny and Tommy stay outside and lean against the car. That’s all there is to it, but it’s got an understated touch of the sublime.

In the first half of the film, we keep being introduced to funny, familiar people. Woody himself, of course, being first on the list. The first shot in the film is Woody as Ray Winkler peering around a newspaper with the headline “The Boy Who Fooled New York.” Next is Tracey Ullman (who had been in Bullets Over Broadway, 1994), another familiar face we are used to laughing at. Two more guys that had minor roles in previous Woody movies are brought in as Ray’s gang: Michael Rappaport (Denny) was in Mighty Aphrodite and Tony Darrow (Tommy), Sweet and Lowdown. Every time there is a bump in the plot, another funny, familiar person is introduced. Ray’s plan hinges on renting out an empty pizza joint, but the lease has been taken already. When he goes to buy off the old lady who got it, it turns out that the old lady is his old buddy Benny form cellblock 8, played by John Lovitz. Once the plan is in motion, the cookie store starts becoming too busy for Frenchy to handle on her own, so she has to bring in her cousin, played by Elaine May. The deck is thus stacked towards hilarity and things come fast and funny, gag following plot point, et cetera, until the midpoint of the film when the heist goes south and the cookie business booms.

We are next given a 60 Minutes interview segment, replete with Steve Kroft, that comes a full year later and introduces us to the new lifestyle the Winklers and their partners are living. Strangely enough, after their interviews detailing their new roles as vice presidents of the cookie empire, Benny, Denny, Tommy and the cop played by Brian Markinson— the whole gang—walk right out of the picture. They are replaced by Hugh Grant as an art dealer called David who Frenchy hires to give her lessons on life and high culture. Jokes still carry the day—mostly Frenchy showing off her ignorance and Ray longing for a lower-class existence—but where the first half of the movie had plot mechanics, this half has character development.

Frenchy the cookie mogul hosts her coming out party as a patron of the arts and her excruciatingly phony simulation of rich/classy behavior prompts accusations that she’s “perfectly vulgar,” reminding me of the devastating scene in Interiors (1978) when Mary Beth Hurt’s character calls her father’s new girlfriend, played by Maureen Stapleton, a “vulgarian.” The point of that scene in Interiors was about class difference: the daughter is reacting to the fact that her father is interested in a woman who is everything that her mother raised her not to be, but she uses the terms of classism to insult her. This second half of Small Time Crooks is also about class difference, but what is Woody trying to say about it? Frenchy is humiliated as ignorant before and during her education from David. Once she starts actually learning a few things and getting some taste, the audience has already been apprised of the fact that David is planning on seducing her for her fortune. In the end, she is ripped off by someone else instead—her accountants—and David calls her stupid and tells her to get out. She gets her revenge on him using a low-class technique taught to her by Ray. What’s the message? Lower class people should stay in their own world because they will be humiliated and tricked by the evil and/or just cruel rich people? I know, I know, I shouldn’t assume that the outcome of a particular narrative is intended by its maker to be a proscription for behavior or an all-encompassing worldview. But still, this is pretty bleak stuff. Not only does Frenchy get screwed, she becomes less and less likeable the more she talks about “outgrowing” Ray.

Meanwhile, Ray is going through his own issues in adventures of the nouveau riche. He hates it. He wants to move to Miami and “be at the dog track every day.” I’m not sure how Woody Allen the person and public figure is seen by the rest of the world, or by people who are old enough to have watched the progression of his career as it actually played out. But to me, a guy who was 11 years old when the Soon-Yi thing went down, Woody Allen was this sophisticated, metropolitan, New York guy. He was a filmmaker who made jokes about literature, played jazz in his spare time and had a house in Europe. He seemed classy and glamorous. So, coming from where I’m coming from, seeing Woody playing blue collar schlub is seeing him playing against type. Sure, Ray Winkler talks a lot like Woody’s classic nebbish persona, but he’s not really him. Ray is not neurotic. He’s not well read. He gets the titles of movies wrong. He’s pretty much the opposite of the characters that I grew up watching him play in Husbands and Wives or Crimes and Misdemeanors or Hannah and Her Sisters (I used to joke that all my favorite Woody movies had “and” in the title.)

Ray is uncomfortable rich. He was “a guy from the rackets,” he just wants to eat hamburgers. Frenchy wants to eat what rich people eat, and she wants to be told why she should like it. Ray doesn’t buy into that world at all. Elaine May, as May, comes back into the picture at this point. She shares Ray’s appreciation of the not-so-fine things in life like MSG (as in the stuff on Chinese food, not Madison Square Garden, although they probably like it there, too), pizza, James Cagney, baseball. The plot also kicks back in as Ray takes May in on his new plot and both Ray and Frenchy crack a safe. Ray had earlier told Frenchy that he knew he was in love with her the night he taught her how to crack a safe and she got it. She replies, “You’re a very romantic man.” Later, after they have separated and she has been both taken in and betrayed by David, she cracks his safe to take back an extraordinarily expensive gift she’d given him. Frenchy and Ray reunite, their new life funded by the spoils of her robbery (which she succeeds at, but not Ray’s robbery, which he planned but totally screwed up.) Somehow the safecracking as an exchange between the husband and wife is a symbol—what Ray taught Frenchy is not just how to crack a safe, but how to be happy living life the way they know how to live it. Way back at the beginning of the film when Ray is trying to convince Frenchy to go in on the plan she says, “We’re poor but we’re happy, aren’t we?” And Ray replies, “No! You’re always complaining.” The implication is, he’s doing it for her. She’s the one that wants the money, and when she gets it she wants the class to go along with it. Ray, it turns out, wants neither. When Frenchy tells him she wants to separate, she offers him half the money. He turns it down and then goes back to what makes him happy: scheming on how to get rich.

Perhaps at the beginning of the new millennium, Woody just wanted to get back to what used to make him happy and make some comedies. After a string of projects considerably more high-concept in nature, including the Miramax hit Everyone Says I Love You and the Sony Pictures Classic critical darling Sweet and Lowdown, Woody signed a multi-picture deal with Dreamworks. He delivered a series of old-fashioned comedies. First was Small Time Crooks, whose plot some said had a striking resemblance to the Edward G. Robinson vehicle Larceny, Inc. (1942). It was Woody’s highest-grossing film since Crimes and Misdemeanors 11 years prior. Buoyed by this success, Dreamworks ponied up Woody’s biggest budget ever for the lame hypnotism caper Curse of the Jade Scorpion. They didn’t learn their lesson and kept the budget high for Hollywood Ending. When that one flopped too they marketed his next picture, Anything Else (2003) as a teen comedy starring Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs. Possibly taking all the criticism about casting himself opposite hot younger blondes Helen Hunt and Tea Leoni in his previous two films, Woody gave the romantic lead to American Pie vet Jason Biggs and took the role of the older guy to whom he goes to for advice. Whether or not the appearance of these younger stars was the result of studio pressure I don’t know, but the marketing campaign didn’t help the fact that there was something weirdly wrong with the tone of this film that you just couldn’t put your finger on.

Again, there’s no way for me to do anything but speculate about the relationship between a filmmaker and a studio, but as soon as Woody left Dreamworks he ditched the lame comedies and immediately made something experimental again. (To be fair, Dreamworks was back in business with Woody just one film later.) Melinda and Melinda, made for Fox Searchlight, is like a conversation between those two hypothetical halves of Woody’s brain that people used to talk about around the time he did Stardust Memories (1980): the serious side and the (yes I’m going to do it, here comes the most clichéd quote in all of Woody’s oeuvre) “earlier, funnier” side. It’s interesting for that, and the frame narrative with Wallace Shawn and Neil Pepe discussing why people are attracted to comedy vs. tragedy could serve as the basis for an excellent analysis of Woody’s career as per that issue. However: there is something seriously suspect about any movie that casts Will Farrell and then makes him not funny.

The next thing that happens is weird: Woody goes to England, makes a riff on Crime and Punishment starring some incredibly attractive people and scores a freaking smash. Match Point made $85 million worldwide. That’s over four times as much as Melinda and Melinda. The movie is good, and interesting as a Woody Allen film. It’s serious, but in a much different way than, say, Manhattan (1979) or Husbands and Wives. I’ve heard it called a fable. At one point in the plot it’s a bit of a police drama. When it came out, Film Comment put it on the cover and Harlan Jacobsen wrote, “If Match Point is to be celebrated as a return to form, it’s to a form that Woody has never had,” and went on to point out that it even “makes use of a visual metaphor… that comes round as a plot device,”something Woody had never done in all those years. (Film Comment, Jan/Feb 2006, pg. 48.)

I, for one, am ecstatic about the possibility that this long, grand filmmaking career we call Woody Allen has yet another ‘mature style’ to bring to the table. As far as I can tell, in the upcoming Cassandra’s Dream, starring (seriously?) Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor, Woody moves even further down the hallway whose door he opened up with Match Point. Those bits near the end that resembled a policier really give me hope, they really do. Woody hasn’t been funny in seven years. Maybe he should start trying to be more dramatic.



Bonus fun:

On the Denmark DVD scene, Hugh Grant and John Lovitz are the stars of this picture! Tracey doesn't seem to mind, but Woody looks pretty perturbed.

4 comments:

Alex Barkett said...

I agree. Comedy changes so quickly. Woody's best bet is to go minimal, a la Interiors. I'm sure he can still write dramatic dialogue that rivals the very best. Cassandra's Dream, I fear, is going to be a disappointment, but I'm extremely excited to see it nonetheless.

http://staticfix.blogspot.com

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

I'm interested to see how Woody would handle such material--if he does it well, I will be pleased indeed.

Adam said...

Did you enjoy "Scoop?" I thought that it was funny, personally. However, I found Scarlett J's performance to be somewhat annoying.

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