WOODY WEDNESDAY Reviews of past Woody Allen Movies PART 4


Small Time Crooks Water Main Scene

Celebrity (1998)

113 min., rated R.
Grade: C 

Woody Allen stays behind the camera this time around in his ensemble piece “Celebrity.” Kenneth Branagh, in the “Woody role,” apes the flustered tics, and even his fickle ways of never settling with one woman, to the best of his ability. But he’s miscast and nobody plays Woody better than Woody. 

Branagh plays Lee, a journalist who has run-ins with some of Hollywood’s celebrities and there’s never a dull moment. He’s recently divorced from his schoolteacher ex-wife, Robin (Judy Davis, very neurotic and brittle), who was devastated to find Lee was having an affair. 

By turns entertaining and boring, with vignettes that work and others that do not, the shallow, scattershot “Celebrity” doesn’t have much to say besides, most transparently, how we and Allen view celebrities. At least it’s crisply shot in black and white by Sven Nykvist (his fourth collaboration with Allen), though Allen’s beloved New York is used to little effect. 

The large cast recruited here is handled better here than the one in last year’s “Deconstructing Harry.” Davis brings her fidgeting in full swing here and she’s easily the most interesting thing in the film as Robin, who actually has the biggest arc after meeting a man in the TV industry (Joe Mantegna) that gives her the confidence she needs. Everyone else mostly gets a laugh or a moment, then walks off. Charlize Theron is stunning as a libidinous supermodel. Melanie Griffith rings true as a movie star who thinks she’s still being faithful to her husband if she only cheats from the waist up. Leonardo DiCaprio is wildly off-the-wall but probably playing close to the truth as a rebellious young movie star who trashes a hotel room, beats his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), drinks and does drugs, and has a threesome. Bebe Neuwirth, as a hooker, has a hilarious scene with Davis where she teaches her how to perform oral sex on a banana; it’s a delirious bit of physical comedy. Winona Ryder also sparkles as a struggling actress that Lee goes after. 

With that cast, it’s watchable, but even the greatest filmmakers have disappointments and “Celebrity” counts as Woody Allen’s most disappointing.

Small Time Crooks (2000)
95 min., rated PG.
Grade: B 

Writer-director Woody Allen shows his face on screen for the first time since 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry” in the lead with “Small Time Crooks,” classic Allen that’s no more and no less a sweetly enjoyable caper. 

Allen plays Ray, an ex-con New York dishwasher who lives paycheck to paycheck in a cramped apartment with Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), his loud, straight-shooting stripper-turned-Fmanicurist wife. So he thinks up a half-baked get-rich-quick scheme: buy out a closed-down pizza shop so they can tunnel through the basement wall and rob the bank next door. With his gang of three dummies (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, Jon Lovitz), Ray is the “brains” behind the operation and Frenchy distracts the public upstairs baking cookies. Then their cookie-store “front” becomes such an overnight sensation that wealth goes to their head. And as Frenchy strives to become a more cultured and sophisticated socialite, Ray and her grow apart. 

The plot is ever so thin and shapeless as an episode of “The Honeymooners,” but it’s more about the funny one-liners and endearing performances. Allen’s screen character is still a nervous jokester but he plays Ray as a less intelligent schmo. Ullman is a delight and hilariously on par with Allen, delivering sharp-tongued wisecracks. Screenwriter Elaine May does wonderfully daft supporting work, stealing every scene as Frenchy’s cousin, May, a dumb broad who hasn’t a clue what’s going on but always speaks the truth. Hugh Grant, the major star here, is only okay as a con artist whom Frenchy hires to educate her on art and opera. 

“Small Time Crooks” is certainly a small time effort from Allen’s canon but still fun. 

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
104 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B 

Mr. Woody Allen has fallen into a slump of just making slight movies rather than great movies, but it’s still Allen, and “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” is a wispy little screwball comedy. Natch, the Brooklyn-based Big Apple lover sets his film in Manhattan but in the 1940s, and it’s just a pleasure to watch. 

He stars as CW Briggs, a crack insurance investor and ladies’ man who’s considered a dinosaur by his firm’s new efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). At a nightclub, they both get hypnotized by a con artist (with the swing of a jade scorpion) into loving each other and whenever “Constantinople” or “Madagascar” is uttered on the phone they’re put under and go into a trance robbing jewels from an estate safe. And even though CW is old, short, and nearsighted, can Fitzgerald tame him? 

All of “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” feels gentle and old-fashioned with the Woodman’s classic sharpness still showing up in his mostly zingy dialogue. Attractively shot, the film has a sparkling period flavor of a ’40s film noir, and all the women are groomed like Veronica Lake. 

At 65 years old, Allen is still at it with his fidgety, stammering persona and a lot of his one-liners work. In the dame role, Hunter keeps up with Allen’s “His Girl Friday”-style spitballing and gives it right back to him with insulting barbs in a battle-of-the-sexes. Theron gets some playful wordplay as a promiscuous actress when trying to seduce Briggs. For instance, when the hot little number first meets C.W., she purrs “You don’t seem tough enough to go after criminals,” and he jumps back with “Really? Maybe if I slapped you around a little bit you’d change your mind.” (Side note: it’s starting to become less charming that Allen takes home women 30 years his junior.) Other supporting cast members shine as well, like Dan Aykroyd, Wallace Shawn, and Elizabeth Berkley. 
The chuckles and smiles are pretty consistent through the lightweight fun of “Jade Scorpion,” even if the romance is so contrived that only a hypnotist could make Hunt fall in love with Allen. They can love to hate each other, but the attraction between the two is inconceivable. 

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