Small-Time Woody, Expert Tracey

I used to say Woody Allen on a bad day was better than everybody else on Sunday, but now I’m beginning to wonder. No amount of admiration for America’s most original and prolific filmmaker can disguise the fact that Small Time Crooks is Woody on a very bad day indeed.

Sure, there are some funny ideas banging around in this comedy, but they come and go like unidentified alien spaceships. A sighting here, a signal there, then off the screen into the wild blue yonder, never to be seen again. A first-rate cast that includes Woody himself, human chameleon Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Hugh Grant, Elaine Stritch and George Grizzard manages to keep the interest focused, but not for long. The film is so episodic and meandering that concentration soon proves impossible and the mind begins to wander. Small Time Crooks makes golden retrievers of us all.

While the soundtrack plays an old Hal Kemp recording of “With Plenty of Money and You,” Woody, looking like an aging dachshund with long hair that’s just been rubbed the wrong way, quickly establishes himself as a bumbling crook named Ray, a dishwasher who has just served two years in the stir for a bungled robbery. (“It wasn’t my fault-we were all wearing Ronald Reagan masks and I didn’t know who was who.”) Ray decides to make a comeback by drilling a tunnel through the floor of an abandoned shop into the bank vault next door. All he needs is to talk his peroxided, gum-chewing manicurist wife, Frenchy (Ms. Ullman), into turning the abandoned store into a cookie shop as a “front.” While Ray and his mouse-brained partners in crime battle ruptured water mains, Frenchy’s cookies become a runaway success with such bizarre flavors as cinnamon cherry and chocolate-chip-jelly-bean-surprise. Frenchy hires her addled cousin Mae (Elaine May) to take care of the volume, and suddenly Sunset Cookies is on the channel 2 news at 6. Instead of arresting them all, the cops get their own franchise and in one year, the business turns into a baking empire rivaling Nabisco.

The movie shifts focus. The cookie business turns Ray and Frenchy into paragons of tasteless nouveau vulgarity. After striking it rich, Frenchy can finally afford chartreuse pedal pushers and leopard-print tank tops, as well as a status-ready new penthouse decorated with bronze lilies, a carpet that lights up and a collection of leather pigs. Ray misses meatballs and cheeseburgers. Frenchy serves truffles and snails. The small-time crook plot is abandoned, while Woody takes a poke at New York’s social climbers, with a number of well-placed poison darts tossed in all the right directions. More laughs ensue when Frenchy drags herself to an expert to teach her class in a flash, the way Arthur Murray taught dancing in a hurry. Hugh Grant plays the suave art collector who turns Frenchy into a culture vulture. “This is where Henry James lived,” he points out, on a walking tour of New York’s landmarks. Ray looks blank. “The band leader, stupid,” sniffs Frenchy.

In the third part of this unhinged triptych, the oily Mr. Grant takes Frenchy to Europe to learn more about burgundies and bordeaux. Ray stays in New York (“My idea of a good time is not a lot of operas and ruins; I get enough sleep at home”) and with the dopey Mae as a lookout, masterminds a new plot to steal an emerald necklace from a snobby socialite named Chi Chi Potter (Elaine Stritch). With typical idiocy, he swipes a fake necklace no more valuable than a broken green milk bottle; Mr. Grant turns out to be a fortune hunter; the cookie franchise goes belly up; and they’re all back to square one.

It is here that Woody fans expect a surprise ending, but there isn’t even a grain of petty larceny left in Ray and Frenchy. The film has no final resolution, no last laugh, not even a payoff. You leave scratching your head with a look of “Duh!” on your face that pretty much sums up the whole 90 minutes. Woody is goofy and a sight to behold in stone-washed denim shorts. Elaine Stritch can still stop you in your tracks with a meaningless, drop-dead one-liner (which is all she gets here). Elaine May sounds dentally impaired, like the victim of some disastrous bridgework. Hugh Grant mainly just plays himself. It’s pretty much up to the fearless Tracey Ullman, as a hybrid of Jocelyne Wildenstein, Famous Amos and My Friend Irma, to carry this lightweight fluff, and she steals the picture right out from under everybody else while doing it.

Woody Allen is like a hemophiliac with too many paper cuts and not enough Band-Aids. His fountain of ideas never runs dry, but in Small Time Crooks it doesn’t exactly turn tap water into Perrier, either. The actors seem to be making up the plot as they go along. After such recent banquets as Celebrity and Sweet and Lowdown , this is a microwaved hors d’oeuvre, a lazy comedy that is only lazily diverting.

Kaye Ballard Reigns; Mrs. Avis Can Sing

Two jampacked openings last week have boosted my faith in the cabaret scene. At Arci’s Place, New York’s hottest new club on Park Avenue South, the great Kaye Ballard is back with a funny, musical splash she calls Another Farewell Appearance and, of course, everybody hopes she’s kidding. In the good old days, before the Apple was defiled and reviled as a scandal-ridden Giuliani police state, the abundantly talented Kaye was a bright star in Broadway musicals like The Golden Apple and Carnival , and a celebrated fixture after dark in posh watering holes like the Bon Soir and the Upstairs at the Downstairs. These days, a trip to New York from a comfy life in the California desert is rare. But when she’s in town, hope springs eternal and sophistication reigns supreme.

In the vaudeville tradition, she grifts and grinds her way through Irving Berlin’s “Slumming on Park Avenue,” tells anecdotes about Alice Faye and Betty Grable and lets you know in no uncertain terms “if you don’t know who they were, then get the hell outta here!” Refurbishing old chestnuts with new lyrics she even pokes fun at herself to the tune of Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” (“Look at me / an Ace Bandage on each knee / Stormy Weather … Posturepedic shoes in patent leather”) and sings 10 consecutive bars of “It Had to be You” like someone having a senior moment.

There’s always an abundance of humor in her act, whether she’s sending up Martha Stewart’s annual too-busy Christmas letter (homemade place mats, napkins, and hand-stenciled ceilings, a 12-course breakfast for 20 and 40,000 cranberries to string before a noon speaking engagement) or trying to figure out the horrors of rap music by “Puff Pastry … er, Daddy.” Like all intelligent cabaret performers of a certain vintage, she’s discovered the wit, humor and musical savvy of Cy Coleman songs, and pays homage to his two favorite lady lyricists, Carolyn Leigh and Dorothy Fields. She can turn dropping names into a party game. (“Who did Mother Goose and is Helen Reddy now? Who did Lucille Ball and who gave Edith Head?”) And a reminiscence about her early days in Manhattan, doing six shows a day at the Strand with Spike Jones and his City Slickers and first discovering the artistry of Mabel Mercer leads into an uncanny and affectionate show-stopping imitation of the cabaret duchess on “If You Leave Paris” that left them cheering.

Nostalgically, she sings tributes to the people who lit up New York in the golden years-Portia Nelson, Bart Howard, Arthur Siegel, Paul Lynde, Jimmy Durante-and makes you wonder where we all went wrong. There’s something bracing about having her around. Hilarious and touching, with a heart as big as her girdle, Kaye Ballard has forgotten more about show business than most young performers will ever learn. And yes, she still plays the piccolo.

At the FireBird Cafe, what’s left of cafe society is cramming in tight as the Russian caviar to see glamorous chanteuse Yanna Avis conduct a guided tour through a landscape of love that roams sensually from the boîtes of Edith Piaf’s Paris to the cellars of Marlene Dietrich’s Berlin. Not since I first heard luscious Hildegard Knef in a smoky dive in Berlin have I seen so entrancing and svelte a femme fatale. Singing “Just a Gigolo” with one sequined leg propped on a stool and her haute couture derrière planted on top of the grand piano, it is clear that if this woman has ever eaten a Hershey bar it would have made headlines.

Born in France of Romanian descent, she sings sultry torch songs with equal ease in French, German, Spanish and, of course, English, but she’s full of surprises, too. Cole Porter’s seldom-heard “Ca C’est L’amour” is a tantalizing centerpiece, but she picks up the pieces and the tempo on Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s “How Little We Know” and Ervin Drake’s “The Friendliest Thing Two People Can Do” with just the right amount of sexy vibrato on the vowels. “Ten Cents a Dance” and “Guess Who I Saw Today” capture two more aspects of love lost, lamented and longed for, and Lucienne Boyer’s famous “Parlez-Moi D’amour” is a perfect encore.

Because she’s the wife of rent-a-car mogul Warren Avis, this underrated singer has been unjustly ignored by the press, but her polished new act, directed by the talented, Tony-winning Thommie Walsh, is the result of talent and hard work, proving there’s more to Yanna Avis than charm, money and a charge account at Elizabeth Arden.