Small Time Crooks
The word 'auteur' isn't all that useful these days, being in some ways a dated hangover, a relic from the sixties, when Bergman and Antonioni and Truffaut and Godard and a dozen others were turning out films that surmounted genres and spoke to audiences with the voices of uncompromised artists. Among the few auteurs America has produced are Chaplin and Keaton, Welles and Sturges, and Altman and Scorsese. Welles and Sturges were both cut off at the knees by the studios, and the work of Altman and Scorsese seems to me too uneven, too scattered, without an arc of growth and depth as they age, somehow not quite worthy of that incantatory word with all its implications for the art of film.
And yet we do have a filmmaker who's been called a true auteur, who in his 35-year career has written and directed almost a film a year, thirty-three to date, has kept the right of final cut to himself, has cast only those actors whom he wished to use, and accepted complete responsibility for the result. He's Woody Allen, of course, and his body of work stands apart from almost everything being done in film today -- as it has for those 35 years past. He makes comedies and dramas and musicals, but with the exception of "Interiors," his one foray into the world of Bergman ("The only connection Woody Allen has with Ingmar Bergman is [cinematographer] Sven Nyqvist," said a cynic), most of his films have had at least some supporting role for his wit.
His new film is the charming "Small Time Crooks," and it harks back to the early days of "Bananas" and "Take the Money and Run," where he plays the quintessential nebbish with dreams of glory. As you would imagine, though, thirty-five years can't help but add some depth to the work, and "Small Time Crooks" has moved his character just far enough off center stage so that his costar Tracey Ullman, playing his wife Frenchy, has the room to breathe on screen.
Allen is a longtime bank robber, and the film begins as he scouts a bank heist, in which he and his associates -- who might be called Dumb, Dumber, and Dumbest -- will rent a vacant store two doors away, set up a phony business there (Frenchy's homemade cookies), tunnel from the basement into the bank vault, clean it out, and retire to Florida. ("Don't you remember, in prison, they used to call me The Brain?" he says to the doubting Jon Lovitz. Lovitz, with his impeccable timing, holds it a beat, blinks, and says, "That was sarcastic.")
There's more, of course, as Frenchy's cookies take off and make them millionaires, giving Frenchy big eyes for upscale living, but it all works out in the end. Elaine May, as Frenchy's idiot cousin, has some delightful moments on screen ("My husband Otto, who died, was dyslexic. He could only spell his name," she says.)
So this film has wit and talented actors at their comic best. But I don't know that Allen's work, here and elsewhere, rises to the implications of genius we associate with the word auteur. As much as Allen has given us in his films over the years, and I for one find much of it breathtakingly good, there's still a sense that unlike the artists who rip themselves open emotionally in order to help us better understand life and ourselves, Allen holds back in his work just enough to stay comfortably outside the pain. You may say that's not his job, and I agree, but too many of his films simply lack the resonance we find in the greatest artists.
One final word: Allen's onscreen mannerism of using his two forearms like semaphores, pumping them up and down while he stumbles over his lines, has gotten beyond the point of wit or charm, and needs to be addressed by a grownup.