Last Exit to Brooklyn

Take the money and run: The Winklers (Tracey Ullman and Woody Allen) learn art appreciation from a seedy collector (Hugh Grant)

New York--

Woody Allen seems genuinely perplexed. "Somehow I got this reputation for being an intellectual," he says. "It must be the glasses."

Hmm--I would have thought the shout-outs to Dostoyevsky and Bergman might have had something to do with that supposed misperception. Allen now coyly writes off past name-dropping as a "patina of intellectualism" adopted, he quips characteristically, as a way to impress high-class women. And as for peopling his films with erudite, tweedy folk? Well, he shrugs, he's constrained by the limitations of his idiosyncratic acting style. "I can basically play two kinds of roles," he self-deprecatingly insists. "I can play college professors, or I can play shady types."

He can also play Woody Allen, of course. Anyone who doubts the versatility of Allen's acting abilities should have seen him handle the dozen or so reporters at a recent New York roundtable for his latest film, Small Time Crooks. Within minutes of taking his seat, Allen's persona du jour was established. Casually professional in a button-down shirt and khakis, and looking several years younger and several degrees less frail than he does onscreen, this wasn't the testy Upper East Side auteur we'd half-expected to browbeat us. This was Woody Allen, man of the people--Brooklyn kid made good, voracious devourer of low comedy, die-hard Knicks fan. "My family wasn't low culture," he protests. "It was no culture."

All of which is by way of introduction to his latest alter ego, small-time crook Ray Winkler. Ray is certainly, to use Allen's terms, a shady type, and a no-culture partisan to boot. Our first glimpse is of a wary Ray cagily lowering a New York Post while casing a storefront across the street. Allen hasn't looked like such a schlemiel in years, skinny legs dangling from jean shorts, and the sight gag sparks a laugh of familiar recognition.

Zanily hectic but still kept in taut directorial control, Small Time Crooks follows the romantic and economic upheavals of Ray and his wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman). An ex-con who wants to make one big score before he retires, Ray purchases an empty store a few places down from a bank. While Frenchy sells cookies as a front, Ray and his cohorts plan to tunnel under the bank. Unexpectedly, their cookie shop takes off, and the couple becomes the country's most celebrated entrepreneurs. As they enter the ranks of the nouveau riches, however, the tasteless, restless Frenchy craves to be cultured (or at least seem cultured), and enlists the tutelage of a no-account art dealer (Hugh Grant) determined to turn her into his fair lady.

The film's dialogue hardly crackles, but Allen and Ullman generate a comic frisson Allen hasn't always been able to spark with his younger co-stars. And its freewheeling manner of unfolding a plot keeps us thinking as little as Allen intends. But what may be more important is Allen's insistence that the film provides a glimpse of the director's true self. "People think of me more seriously than I am," Allen states. "Most of my films have been just out-and-out comedies."

Since Allen feels that comedy's broad structures "come naturally" to him, these movies can be a more honest route to deciphering the cultural syntax of his art than is the craft of his dramas. Put more plainly: When a guy goes this far out of his way to prove how unpretentious he is, you just know he's insecure about the pretensions he does harbor.

Later in the day, Allen's co-stars provide their own takes on the class question. His eyes squinted to convey sincere concern, the more patrician Hugh Grant wonders, "You don't think the movie comes off as snobbish, do you?" before involuntarily tossing back that hair.

On some level, Small Time Crooks is snobbish, lampooning the distaste for the common that plagues the self-made success. The wardrobe of elastics and lime greens that Frenchy sports in her attempt to go high class (and her garish decorating, which features a gaudy harp and plenty of leopard skin) are certainly set up for ridicule. There's something about her overreaching that's meant to be comic.

But Frenchy is also a sympathetic character, largely due to Allen's casting of Ullman. In interviews, the comically lumpen Ullman laughs about how Americans think they don't have a class system. It's Frenchy's breeziness, as translated by Ullman, that keeps Crooks clear of condescension. Ullman's esprit allows her character to rise above this implicit mockery of her "sheer, flawless vulgarity" (as one awestruck socialite describes her character).

Ray, who despises highbrow tedium, is more complicated. He isn't the first of Allen's alter egos who'd steadfastly avoid the opera. Even the filmmaker's educated characters have tweaked upper-class posturing, and the opposition between basketball and culture stretches back to Annie Hall's Alvy Singer ducking out of a snooty cocktail party to catch the Knicks on TV. But most of the other protagonists in Allen's films have articulated a middle position between low culture and high culture, championing an authentic art as opposed to a commercial one. Ray can see through the pretensions of the upwardly mobile and the socially entrenched alike, but has no alternate culture to wield in his defense. He doesn't have Gershwin, or Gene Kelly, or any of Allen's classier pop-culture heroes on his side.

There's a world of difference between Ray's desire to suck on a beer and memorize Latrell Sprewell's career field-goal percentage and Frenchy's dream of sipping wines and carousing amid the glamorous ruins of Europe. Yet just as the hypernebbishy Woody Allen of movies past represents a hyperbolic self-portrait, Ray's common touch here feels like a wishful exaggeration. Maybe, as Allen says, he's always been just an average guy name-dropping to get by. But that doesn't make him Ray, who probably wouldn't dig Wild Strawberries, or Armstrong's Hot Five recordings, or, for that matter, Manhattan. Allen's cultural blind spot, in other words, is that he feels compelled to pretend that he doesn't quite understand the culture of Woody Allen films.


Small Time Crooks starts Friday at area theaters.

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