With Woody’s Cookie Caper, Some Careers Could Cool Off

Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks may not be the least funny, most joyless and most mean-spirited movie the Woodman has ever made, but it comes very close. But that may be just me. Some people at the screening were giggling uncontrollably at the Ralph and Alice Kramden insults being hurled back and forth between Mr. Allen’s terminally clumsy ex-con would-be bank robber Ray Winkler and Tracey Ullman’s ex-topless-dancer turned social climber Frenchy Winkler. On occasion, Ray even raises his fist at Frenchy, and, though he never actually hits her, he is treading on dangerous ground in terms of his recent offscreen publicity.

The first half-hour of the film is devoted to a witless caper plot distantly derived from an old Edward G. Robinson programmer, Larceny, Inc. (1942), in which Robinson gets more laughs from a luggage shop used as a front for a tunneling expedition into an adjoining bank vault than Mr. Allen squeezes out of a pizza shop converted into a cookie shop for the same purpose. The big joke in the Depression-era movie was how tough guy Robinson discouraged the occasional customer from hanging around the premises, whereas the big joke in Small Time Crooks is the unexpected success of the cookie-shop front, to the point that it becomes a Fortune 500 gold mine for Ray and Frenchy.

The real trouble starts, literally and figuratively, when Frenchy starts putting on airs and Ray wants to stay a mug and settle down in Miami. Unfortunately, the level of satire Mr. Allen attains in his treatment of the culture vultures and society swells eagerly pursued by Frenchy would have seemed a bit broad for the old Bowery Boys. Besides, Mr. Allen was never as much a character actor as a shrewd peddler of his offscreen persona as Manhattan’s most famous analysand, Knicks fan, practicing jazzman, witty autodidact, professed admirer of Mozart’s music and Bergman’s films and ostentatious recluse with a strategically placed table reserved at Elaine’s.

His take, therefore, on the vast mass of mankind is, at the very least, uncertain, if not unpleasantly condescending. It would be a mistake to call his characters cartoonish or comic-strippy. The cartoons and comic strips I see and read these days are much more sharply etched and verbally articulated. And I am not talking about the showcases like Dilbert and Doonesbury ; just about every comic strip on the market couldn’t get away with the flat and obvious dialogue in Small Time Crooks . For the first time ever, I have gotten the feeling that Mr. Allen is hopelessly out of date and out of touch with everything that is going on around him.

But one could forgive his period quaintness if there was any sign of feeling in his characters. Up to now, high-priced performers have been happy to work for a pittance if it meant appearing in a picture made by a “genius,” a term Mr. Allen ridicules other people for overusing, but one he overuses himself. His big casting coup-moneywise-in Small Time Crooks is the currently hot Hugh Grant. If too many people see the movie, however, Mr. Grant’s career could cool considerably. The petty, petulant, faux-Pygmalion art dealer, David, played by Mr. Grant, is one of the sleaziest and most unsympathetic characters Mr. Allen has ever created.

As for Tracey Ullman’s Galatea, she is too one-dimensionally boorish to even evoke pathos. Indeed, this overgimmicky performer makes us more fully appreciate the genuine genius of Judy Holliday in similar roles. But Holliday had heart, and Ms. Ullman only has schtick. Mr. Allen’s use of Elaine May as an afterthought kind of character is the only interesting element of the film. Mr. Allen doesn’t seem to know what to do with a talent equal to his in wit and sharpness, though his perceptive admiration of her brilliance seems to be reflected in his wary reactions to her in their scenes together. Yet, as a character, she simply peters out in the end for the sake of a truly tedious reconciliation between Ray and Frenchy, mired forever in their mutual mediocrity.

Graceful Sister Act: Offed One by One

Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides , from her screenplay based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, unexpectedly turns out to be a subtler and more supple piece of cinema than most reviewers have indicated. I say unexpectedly because I had been led to believe the film was a gauzy, wispy, ghostly and largely unexplained treatment of a morbid fiction. Instead, I found lurking just beneath the surface of a family tragedy, a powerful undercurrent of upscale snobbery and exclusionary cruelty in the community at large. Ms. Coppola doesn’t wave any flags either for feminism or for misunderstood adolescence. She actually ridicules all the do-gooders of church, state and the media, with their pat answers to all of life’s baffling pathologies. Still, she doesn’t supply answers of her own, or rather, she doesn’t underline the answers that are staring us in the face on the screen.

The normal first reaction to a story about five teenage sisters who kill themselves one by one is to blame the parents for their misadventures. And the parents here, played by James Woods and a matriarchally padded Kathleen Turner, are each weird enough in manner and behavior to justify the most censorious diagnosis of dysfunction. Mr. Lisbon teaches math at the high school and is a virtual cipher at home, under the dominance of sexually repressed and religiously fanatical Mrs. Lisbon. Eventually, the mother explodes and her children seem to pay the price, while the father goes completely mad.

I haven’t read the novel, but I tend to accept the author’s quasi complaint that the movie has transformed what was in the book-a male fantasy about the haunting mystery of young womanhood buried with the five Lisbon sisters-into a spectacle of five vaguely victimized females who nonetheless dominate the screen until their collective demise. Mr. Eugenides attributes much of the change in emphasis and focus to the sheer materiality on the screen of Kirsten Dunst as Lux, Hanna Hall as Cecilia, Chelse Swain as Bonnie, A. J. Cook as Mary and Leslie Hayman as Therese. The power of the males in the novel to idealize and thereby immortalize the five Lisbon sisters is thus shared with the audience through the magic of the camera.

But what Ms. Coppola’s film establishes, as much by elision and indirection as by direct statement, is that the five suicides were motivated by a collective realization that there was no future for the five in a ruthless system of caste and class.

Schoolgirls Seeking Ecstasy and Orgasms

Colette Burson’s Coming Soon , from a screenplay by Ms. Burson and Kate Robin, plays out as a delightfully subversive contemplation of the quest for the female orgasm before a backdrop of Ivy League college admissions anxiety. The setting is the posh Halton School in Manhattan. How posh is the fictitious Halton? Its girls and boys can speak derisively of their counterparts at the real-life Brearley School.

The story centers on three upscale would-be cutting-edge girlfriends who trade war stories about their sexual encounters with the boys in school. Stream Hodsell (Bonnie Root) is the one who finally finds her orgasm in, of all places, a true-love romance with an initially off-putting neurotic rich boy, who has quixotically changed his name from Henry Rockefeller to Henry Lipschitz.

I know this all sounds unbearably coy, but Ms. Root, who reminds me of the deliciously cool and scruffy French actress, Sandrine Kiberlain, holds the film together with the charming perplexity of a girl just pretty enough to call the tune with her suitors, but not narcissistic enough to believe that she is some sort of princess. As a child of divorced parents, like many of her classmates, she doesn’t lose much sleep at night worrying about her father (cunningly named Dick, and played by a well-preserved Ryan O’Neal) and his dalliance with a bimbo.

Indeed, Stream has enough to worry about with her ditsy mother, Judy (played by a manically mellowed Mia Farrow), and her romance with a lazy-lidded potter named Bartholemew (played by Peter Bogdanovich with an admirably accomplished insouciance). When Mr. Bogdanovich rolls his eyes at the mere mention of Barbra Streisand, a nouvelle vague “inside joke” is briskly executed at the altar of Mr. Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), which starred Mr. O’Neal and Ms. Streisand.

Fortunately, the outside jokes are even funnier than the inside variety, thanks to such gifted farceurs as Spalding Gray, as a self-promoting college admissions counselor, and Gaby Hoffman, as Jenny Simon, Stream’s wisecracking but disastrously overweight confidante. Rounding out the teenage troika is Tricia Vessey, who plays Nell Kellner, the best looking, (with a magazine cover to prove it,) but also the most vulnerable, as indicated by a grotesque Prozac overdose attempt.

Ultimately, the picture belongs to Ms. Root’s Stream, who goes through an Ecstasy bout with a self-absorbed slimebag of a lover named Chad (James Roday), endowed with a full assortment of the best designer drugs money can buy, before she finds real ecstasy in the arms of Henry Rockefeller (Lipschitz), who even has his own rock band.

Aside from the conventional pattern of the romantic progression, the film is so shockingly casual about Stream’s experimental escapades that the whole project was reportedly rejected by several studios, and threatened with a commercially ruinous NC-17 rating on two occasions. In fact, Coming Soon , with its orgasmic double-entendre locked into the title, is closer to being a French film than a cautionary and sanitized Hollywood approach to the subject. Ms. Burson’s view of sex is cheeky, but never gross, and kids may have trouble appreciating the epiphany of Stream’s final close-up during her climactic sexual fulfillment.