An insurance investigator and an efficency expert who hate each other are both hypnotized by a crooked hypnotist with a jade scorpion into stealing jewels.
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Woody Allen is my favorite filmmaker. I find his pictures always entertaining and enjoyable, and sometimes, when he's really firing on all cylinders, he imparts some truly profound messages between the laughs. No modern filmmaker has probed more deeply into issues of art vs. life, the nature of celebrity, the mesmerizing confusion that is falling in love. At his best, Allen is the most tantalizing and provocative of all filmmakers. Sad to say, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is not Allen at his best.
"Jade Scorpion" is one of Allen's boutique period productions, a featherweight comic bauble that provides him and his always-talented, always-big-name cast with a chance to wear great old clothes and drive great old cars while enacting a passable old plot. The time is 1940, the place (as is usually the case) is New York City, and Allen is C.W. Briggs, the top investigator for a venerable insurance company. C.W. is a dick of the old school, relying on hunches, stoolies, and his own brand of cunning to crack his cases. As the story begins, C.W. find his domain under threat from an insidious new cultural force: a bright, no-nonsense, career-driven woman. Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), an efficiency expert brought in to streamline the office, detests C.W.'s sloppy methods and shoddy treatment of women, and the two hate each other with a flaming passion. Then one night, they are placed under hypnosis at a nightclub, and Voltan the mesmerist (David Odgen Stiers) makes them fall madly in love with one another. Of course, out of their trance, they remember nothing...and they continue to remember nothing even as Voltan uses his hypnotic powers to make them commit jewel heists. C.W. and Betty Ann join forces to investigate their own crimes, and as they bicker their way through their work, they begin to realize that the passion of their hatred for one another may be hiding passions of another sort.
Allen is trying for something interesting here, a blend of wisecracking screwball comedy and exotic noir mystery, and when it's working, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is a funny and enjoyable romp. When this picture was first released in 2001, the then 65-year-old Allen was intensely criticized for being too old to play a romantic-comedy leading man; so harsh was the commentary, in fact, that he has not taken on such a role since. Nevertheless, I still find Allen immensely charming and amusing here, and he cracks off a great stream of one-liners throughout the film. Hunt matches him line for line, though her work here is not as zesty as in the previous year's "What Women Want", and the script saddles her with a few long, cumbersome digs at C.W. (mostly sarcastic allusions to impending torture and death) that would hobble any actress. The complications of the plot snowball in a clever and precise way, and Allen and Hunt's careful handling of their performances always make us believe that they have absolutely no idea that they are both master jewel thieves.
Fun supporting performances dot the edges of the film. Brian Markinson, a frequent player in Allen’s films of this period, has good chemistry with the Woodman as a fellow insurance dick. Dan Aykroyd is appropriately starchy and stuffy as the head of the office (and Betty Ann's adulterous lover). Stiers is fine as Voltan, though I think the role might have been better served by a more exotic performer (think of someone like Javier Bardem, who spiced up Allen’s last film, “Vicky Christina Barcelona”). As is always the case with Allen, the period atmosphere is impeccable. Cinematographer Zhao Fei gives the picture a burnished glow, and Santo Loquasto's sets are effortlessly realistic. The soundtrack, of course, is overflowing with Allen's beloved early jazz music, most notably a gorgeous rendition of "Sophisticated Lady" that opens and closes the film.
Still, even for all of this, the film never really takes off the way you want it to. The rhythm is sometimes off; I don't know if it's improper handling of the scenes or if Allen is in fact just getting old. Several interludes with Charlize Theron, decked out Veronica Lake style as a smoky vamp, don't give much of a boost to the humor, mainly because I found Theron to be miscast. She's too soft, too girlish, to play a truly fatal femme. The jewel heist conceit, while well-handled, doesn't really develop. We never learn why Voltan is stealing the jewels, and the payoff, rather than building the film to a crescendo, instead just sort of peters out.
Of course, the main thing hanging over the film is an unmistakable air of inconsequence. There's a little bit of noise made in the dialogue about the hidden wrinkles inside all of us, the "touch of larceny" that we could all embrace if social custom didn't straitjacket us so, but the addressing of this theme seems perfunctory at best. This is not profound Allen or probing Allen. It's a trifle, and one that doesn't always satisfy.
I know that from all of this, you probably think I did not enjoy "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion". Actually, I found it very agreeable. I laughed a lot, I enjoyed the chemistry of the two leads (and they DO have chemistry, regardless of what you may have read elsewhere), I savored the look and feel of the film. If you're looking for some laughs, it's worth checking out. But you'll take nothing away from it. For Allen, this definitely falls into the "minor works" column, as did pretty much all of the pictures he made during his early 2000s stint at DreamWorks, a run of films that included “Anything Else”, “Hollywood Ending”, and the profitable-but-flyweight “Small Time Crooks”. His latest picture, “Whatever Works”, opens on June 19th. Here's hoping on this one, he swings for the fences.