Ray And Frenchy's Big Adventure

Woody Allen is confused with the characters he plays more than any other performer, but "Small Time Crooks" should give that game a rest. No one is likely to mistake him for the hapless con man Ray Winkler, a bank robber so inept he and his gang of equally dimwitted thieves (Jon Lovitz, Mark Rapaport, Tony Darrow) dig a tunnel into a clothing store, missing the bank altogether. But if Ray is a loser, he's lucky in his choice of a wife. Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), an ex-stripper, has a gift for baking. She's fronting the cookie store where the gang is doing its tunnel work, and her sweet confections turn out to be an unexpected gold mine. Instead of jail, Ray, his wife and the gang that couldn't dig straight find themselves rolling in dough. Their sham store turns into a national franchise that Krispy Kreme might envy, and soon the nouveau riche Winklers are confronting the horror of getting everything they ever dreamed of. The incurably vulgar Frenchy suddenly fancies herself a socialite and patron of the arts and starts dragging her husband--who just wants to sit in front of a VCR and eat burgers--on a forced march from museum to ballet to opera. Can their marriage survive?

This is an amiable and quite conventional comedy. The biggest problem is that it's not all that funny. The whole movie, with its rather antiquated notions of the lower classes, feels as if it were inspired by another era. This may be Allen's attempt to pay homage to his idol Bob Hope. You can feel Hope's influence in Woody's unusually physical performance. "Small Time Crooks," his first movie for DreamWorks, gives off a slight scent of mothballs.

Still, considering that the basic joke is how dumb and uncultured its characters are, the comedy is surprisingly benign. It could have reeked of condescension (as "Mighty Aphrodite" often did). Ullman, who can underplay even the most broadly written part, magically invests this paragon of bad taste with a no-nonsense humanity that rescues her from stereotype. And as the dumbest character of them all, Frenchy's cousin May, Elaine May makes total stupidity totally irresistible. When she's around, this tepid jest is laugh-out-loud funny.

Small Time CrookDreamWorks
Opens May 19