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Saturday, 20 May, 2000, 08:40 GMT 09:40 UK
Woody Allen's box office steal
Woody Allen
Woody Allen promoting the film at Harvard University
By BBC News Online's Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

Woody Allen makes a return to comedy with Small Time Crooks, a farcical crime caper which opens this weekend at the American box office amid expectations that it could become a commercial success.

It is being seen as his most accessible film in years, and one that could restore some glory to the director who has endured a drubbing in the press for creating some obscure films, as well as for his conduct in his personal life.

Woody Allen with Hugh Grant and co-star Jon Lovitz
Film's première: Woody Allen with co-stars
Allen wrote and directed this romp in which he plays Ray Winkler, a New York dishwasher and ex-con who is married to Frenchy, a disgruntled manicurist portrayed by Tracey Ullman.

Ray has a scheme to make off with millions by tunnelling through the basement wall of a former pizza parlour to rob a bank.

The plan goes awry, but by a stroke of luck Frenchy's business, a cookie shop serving as a front for this ill-conceived crime, becomes a huge success.

The couple end up as vulgar nouveau riche Manhattan millionaires and Frenchy is determined to make an entrance into high society.

Woody Allen says he got the idea for the project when he read of a jewellery store robbery a few years ago.

"I thought about it for a while, then I got a funny variation on it in my mind and I wrote it out and it seemed funny to me," he explains.

He doesn't see Small Time Crooks as anything other than light entertainment.

He sees the role of Ray as "a good part that I thought that I could play well", adding that overall he thought the whole caper "would make an amusing evening for people".

Loud and brassy

Tracy Ullman and Hugh Grant
British duo: Ullman and Grant
In early reviews, British actress Tracey Ullman has been receiving strong praise for her portrayal of the loud and brassy Frenchy.

Ullman has worked with Allen before, most notably on the backstage farce Bullets Over Broadway, and was drawn to the costumes this time.

"I just love my clothes in the film, lime-green leggings and shoulder pads.

"It's worth the price of admission to see Woody Allen in stone-washed denim shorts, he's got lovely knees!"

Ray is a man of simple pleasures who seems at odds with the angst-ridden neurotics the filmmaker is best-known for.

A low-life with a bottle of beer in his hand in front of a television set with sports on is who I really am

Woody Allen

But Allen says in reality he is very much like Ray.

"I'm an intellectual because I play an intellectual on the screen, that for me is acting.

"But a low-life with a bottle of beer in his hand in front of a television set with sports on is who I really am, so this was not acting for me."

Urbane English gent

In keeping with tradition Allen has once again managed to cast a big name star in his latest picture.

Hugh Grant plays David, an urbane English gent, who teaches Frenchy how to become sophisticated.

Woody Allen
Allen: Keen to associate himself with anti-intellectual Ray

Grant says he was offered the part when Woody Allen sent him a fax suggesting he would be perfect playing a character who appears to be very nice and charming, but turns out to be thoroughly reprehensible.

"Just about every other British actor has done a Woody Allen film and I think I was the last!," he adds.

It is eight years since Allen's personal life become fodder for the tabloids when it was revealed he was having an affair with Soon-Yi, the adopted daughter of his one-time partner Mia Farrow.

His latest role in Small Time Crooks could be seen as a further effort to lighten up his still tarnished image by creating a popular film in which he plays a man of the people.

Allen has been uncharacteristically eager to talk to reporters to let them know he really is much more like his Ray, as opposed to the nerdy aloof intellectual of the more recent past who created some strange art-house movies.

Whatever his motives, whether it's image-building, a regression to tried-and-tested comedy, or just an earnest endeavour to make a good film, Woody Allen's fans are only too pleased he has made a return to comedy.

As Tracey Ulllman says: "It's lovely to see him cracking broad jokes again and things. I mean it's always fun, you miss it!"

No UK release date for Small Time Crooks has yet been confirmed. Woody Allen's previous film, Sweet and Lowdown, opens nationwide on 9 June.

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19 May 00 | Entertainment
Woody's Dream ticket
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