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<i>Small Time Crooks</i>
Small Time Crooks

Make 'em Laugh

Woody Allen, Ivan Reitman, and Todd Phillips Discuss Their Latest Comedies

Like everyone else, the folks at DreamWorks Pictures may not know the answer to the million-dollar question -- What makes people laugh? -- but they've certainly found a new way to pose the question. Last Friday, May 19, the distribution company (founded by partners Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen) released not one, but two comedies -- Road Trip and Small Time Crooks -- on the same day. This double-punch strategy is rare for a studio, but while both films cater to the funny bone, that's where the similarity ends.

Small Time Crooks marks Woody Allen's first picture to be distributed by DreamWorks, the first in a three-film deal and a movie which he is, atypically, promoting with interviews and national appearances. Filled with lots of slapstick humor, the film has an amiable charm that's reminiscent of Allen's early movies. Allen, whose recent output has performed poorly at the box office, is, perhaps, consciously trying to rediscover the roots of his early success. Yet Allen tosses off the notion that his slapstick approach is intentional. Sometimes, he says, "Instead of a full meal, you want to make a soufflé. I'm a comedian. I make comic films. There are certain ideas that occur to me that are comic with a heavy, serious undertone. There are some ideas that are more frivolous. Small Time Crooks is just a funny idea that I thought would make a good comedy." According to DreamWorks' representatives, the first weekend grosses for Allen's new soufflé are his best opening in 20 years.

Road Trip's producer Ivan Reitman is another certifiable master of movie comedy. As the director of Meatballs and the producer of National Lampoon's Animal House in the late Seventies, Reitman has been able to write his own ticket ever since. He's gone on to direct both Ghostbusters movies, Twins, Stripes, and Dave, and produce such hits as both Beethoven films, Space Jam, and Private Parts. Thus, it's not surprising that 20 years after Animal House, Reitman, who feels that "there was always another college film that could be made about life today," found a kindred soul in Todd Phillips, the director of the contentious documentary Frat House, which, although a hit on the film-festival circuit, has been withheld from commercial distribution. Reitman is the first to admit that "Animal House is clearly a predecessor to Road Trip, although there are predecessors to Animal House as well." For Reitman (like Allen), this film is the first in a new distribution agreement with DreamWorks.

"I met Todd Phillips at the Sundance Film Festival," says Reitman. "I was there, actually, because my son had a short that was selected, and he said, 'You know, you should see this movie Frat House. I think you'd find it really funny.' So I go and I watch, and it is really good. And Todd ends up winning the grand prize that year. And I met him after and he said, 'Oh, I'm so happy to meet you. All my documentaries have been kind of subtle homages to your movies. Like this one is an homage to Animal House.' I said, 'Have you ever thought of directing a narrative style movie?' and he said, 'No. No one's actually ever trusted me to do that.' I said, 'When you come to Los Angeles, let's talk about what you might want to do.' There was something about him. I thought he was very smart. He seemed to know, even from that documentary film, where the joke was -- and that, in my estimation, is a very rare commodity. We started talking about ideas for a movie that he might start writing. I pitched him this idea. I said, 'You know the road trip sequence in Animal House ... that could be used as a framework for a film about college life today,' which I knew he knew a lot about having just made a documentary about it. He said he would try it, and he and Scot Armstrong (a friend of his) went off and started writing this movie."

For director Todd Phillips (who also has a cameo in Road Trip as the film's stealthy toe-sucker), the transition to narrative filmmaking was a natural. After all, he says, "I never approached documentaries like I was Morley Safer." Phillips, whose other documentaries include Hated: G.G. Allin and the Murder Junkies ("G.G. Allin makes Road Trip's Tom Green look like Tom Bosley") and Bittersweet Motel (a film on the rock band Phish, which premiered at this year's SXSW), is also hoping one day to regain the rights to his notorious Frat House and put it into video circulation.

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