His 2000 entry, Small Time Crooks, is one of his unambitious, hoping-only-to-amuse movies. Too bad it's unoriginal, not very amusing, and a near waste of some of this world's greatest comic talent: Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, and Jon Lovitz.
Allen casts himself against type as Ray, a poor, dopey schlub married to an equally dim former exotic dancer, Frenchie (Ullman). He plans an ambitious bank heist: He and some buddies will buy a storefront two doors down from a bank, and run a cookie shop as a front while tunneling underground to reach the bank vault. The heist is a flop, but Frenchie's amazing cookies turn the front operation into a multi-million-dollar business. At this point, a series of tired themes--money can't buy happiness or sophistication or taste, you know--clamp down on the movie; the plot conveys some typical twists; and the movie ends.
Courtesy of a DreamWorks junket to New York, I happened to see a very different comedy within days of Small Time Crooks--one conceived fully within the comic tradition that filled the last decade with stunningly good gross-out boy movies like Shakes the Clown, There's Something about Mary, Tommy Boy, Happy Gilmore, and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut . I refer to Road Trip, possibly the very first humanist gross-out teen sex comedy.
According to both producer Ivan Reitman (Animal House, Stripes, Ghostbusters) and director Todd Phillips (Hated, the great GG Allin documentary), Road Trip takes the 15-minute road-trip sequence from Animal House and expands it to feature length. In this case, "University of Ithaca" college student Josh (Breckin Meyer) accidentally mails his long-distance girlfriend Tiffany (at "the University of Austin") a videotape of him having sex with another woman, forcing him and a trio of college buddies to drive 1,800 miles to recover the tape and save his relationship. Relating the tale of this Odyssean quartet is Benny (Tom Green), the first unreliable narrator figure in a teen sex comedy.
Why "humanist"? This genre of comedy is generally predicated on fear and repulsion toward "the other." This movie parades a sea of creepy or scary archetypes past its travelers (the only one missing is a predatory homosexual)--and then allows them nuanced responses. The foot fetishist and food molester are just creepy, but the large, horny black woman is allowed a dose of humanity, as is the likable, boner-bearing Grandpa. Josh's sidekick E. L. (Seann William Scott) discovers the joys of prostate stimulation, while dorky Kyle (DJ Qualls) wins over an all-black frat house with his dancing before bedding the aforementioned large and lovely woman. Repulsion executes a complicated dance with attraction, and we (and by we, I mean oversexed, underaged boys) emerge from the movie theater better people for it.
Woody Allen has built a long comedic career on many things, but one of them is a broad fear of non-white, non-urban cultures. This once-charming neurosis now seems mere backwardness, no longer suited to the world of today. Could it be that Allen needs to learn a lesson in comedy relevance from a teen sex comedy starring a guy who dry humps dead animals on MTV?
Reader, it could.
Should you find the comparison of these oeuvres unfair, pointless, or absurd, you must know this: It's none of those. My proof? Woody Allen himself, to be seen onscreen sometime in 2001 as part of the Farrelly Brothers' (Dumb and Dumber, There's Something about Mary) next film, Stuck on You. Perhaps old man Woody can learn how the finest comedy of the contemporary era is made, from the masters of that form.