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NewCityNet Oh no, another Woody Allen movie!

By Ray Pride

MAY 22, 2000:  There's a line in "Annie Hall," deriding the word "mellow," that goes something like, "I hate mellow. You get mellow, you ripen, then you rot."

Lines like that, delivered with exquisite intonation and timing, kept clattering through my brain during "Small Time Crooks," the latest enterprise from the Woody Allen assembly line. (And seldom in a kind fashion.) The man works and works and works, but does he work hard enough?

The prolific 64-year-old writer-director-stammerer produces an abundance of work, and while it is made with different time and financial constraints than those afforded the late Stanley Kubrick, Allen seemingly answers to no one in how he practices his craft.

There is a shocking lassitude to the technique of so much of Allen's late work, an artlessness in framing and editing and acting. It's not faux or feigned or affected, like shots in films like "Crimes And Misdemeanors," for instance, where Carlo Di Palma's camera stays rooted while characters ramble around an apartment. On the evidence of his last several, he possesses a simple, callous disregard for the essentials of the creative form he has chosen to dabble in so often. When his budgets were recently downscaled, Allen let go Di Palma and editor Susan Morse, and he employed the great Chinese cinematographer Fei Zhao on "Sweet and Lowdown" and his latest. There's an umber muzziness to most of Zhao's images, and there are slightly more acute angles that would add a certain dynamism to the frame if Allen were more alert to what can go on within the frame. (He seems to work with the camera in terms of confines instead of compositions.)

"Small Time Crooks" is being sold as a comedy like Allen's early, gag-driven films, yet I found hardly a laugh out of any of the situations -- inept robbers become nouveau riche cookie barons and get their comeuppance, natch -- or the caricatures intrepidly, but uninterestingly inhabited by the likes of Elaine May, Jon Lovitz and Michael Rapaport.

And the slovenly writing! I forgave "Celebrity"'s central, implausible Vanity Fair articles writer, played by a stammering Kenneth Branagh, already an ineffectual presence. There were scenes with Charlize Theron's glamazon supermodel and Leonardo DiCaprio's spoiled star that made up for the embarrassments heaped upon the superb, game Judy Davis. There was a bracing meanness in the best moments, as opposed to the curdled, witless misanthropy of "Deconstructing Harry."

What are we to do with the sort of "art" thrown up on screen in "Small Time Crooks"? Non-performances: How does Allen direct? "Stand there. No, there"? Flat, unfunny dialogue: "Just say this stuff"? The always drab Tracy Ullman whooping it up as a malapropism-ridden moron? "Just be your funny self"? The priceless Elaine May feigning a character in a vacuum of imagination. "You're probably the smartest woman ever to make a movie; stand there and be stupid"?

Allen is an adept only of the arty flimflam. He has gotten his fine sinecure as a prolific filmmaker only through the good graces of a series of financial angels, from the executives of the late United Artists and Orion Pictures, to Jean Doumanian (whose last collaboration this film marks) to DreamWorks, who have signed Allen to a multi-picture contract. No one asks questions: Allen is the George Lucas of the upper East Side.

I'm reading Anthony Lane, that quip-jockey the New Yorker entertains as one of their movie reviewers, and he's filled with soothing admiration for this undernourished trinket. "You might not guess quite how gracefully, once again, Allen brings his plot full circle... [with the] gentle, civilized pessimism of his maturity." But what brings the plot full circle, in fact, is simple meanness. The rich are dolts, the working class are dolts, the dolts are, well, undifferentiated dolts. The spectacle of Allen trying to empathize with the working class for comedy seems less from life or watching episodes of "The Honeymooners" than snipes at a griping couple (Allen and Ullman) based on Allen's own parents, as they were on view in "Wild Man Blues."

Walking amid the unlearned, Allen can only condescend. I wanted to laugh. Nothing's off limits in humor, only jokes that don't work. Throughout "Small time Crooks," I longed for Allen to ascend his plinth once more and do something about rich white New Yorkers again. Or take a vacation. He looks tired.


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