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Starring: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman
Director: Woody Allen
Rated: G

AFTER recent films of self-examination (as well as difficulties in his personal life) Woody Allen returned to something of the humour of his earlier comedies with last year’s excellent Sweet and Lowdown with Sean Penn.

With Small Time Crooks, he has become even more simple and straightforward. Thirty years ago he played an inept bank robber in Take the Money and Run. Three decades on he is once again a small time crook but his writing and his directing style show his experience and his great comic style.

Once again he is the small and neurotic hero. However, there is no reference to his being Jewish and there is no reference to counselling or therapy.

Perhaps, as he turns 65 this month, he has had enough therapy in his life. While he has his moments of anguish, he is much more cheerful as he grows older. His New York apartments look out on Central Park, but this time it is New Jersey. In fact, he seems to be turning his back (except to mock them) on the pretentious socialites of Manhattan.

He has written Oscar-winning roles for Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest (twice) and Mira Sorvino. This time the lucky actress is Tracey Ullman. She plays Allen’s larger than life (and him) wife, Frenchie, whose main expertise is baking cookies. He is Ray, who has no expertise but who misses the irony of his fellow prisoners when they call him “The Brain”. Nevertheless, they help him try a robbery, reading maps upside down, drilling into water mains instead of walls and other assorted disasters. Their cover is Frenchie in a shop baking cookies. And it is the cookies rather than the robberies that make them millionaires!

Enter Hugh Grant, bumbling and stumbling as usual, stammering and hesitating, except to make sure that he gets some of her money. And she is an apt pupil, working through the dictionary and testing out A words in conversation, then B … It is here that Tracey Ullman is at her best, entering into her education – and her faux pas – with enormous gusto. And, of course, she leaves Ray far behind and then there’s the eventual divorce. Allen plays Ray convincingly, showing up the stupidity of hoity-toity behaviour.

The other great advantage of the film is the presence of comic and writer, Elaine May, as Frenchie’s nice but dim cousin. She gets a lot of laughs with her bungling of situations, but she emerges as the most sympathetic character.

There is still even more plot and comedy which will delight Allen devotees. And this small time but effective comedy might convert some others.

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