. "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion"

Here we are again in Woody Allen Land where any resemblance to the real world as we recognize it is secondary to the needs of his style of comedy. While what he sees in the mirror hasn't yet convinced this writer-director to spare us suggestions of romantic conquests, let alone flirtations, there are laughs for those willing to suspend or be negatively influenced by disbelief.

C.W. Briggs (Allen) is an inhouse insurance investigator for a 1940s insurance firm, solving more crimes than anyone and a legend in his own offices. The insurance office is run by owner Chris Magruder (Day Aykroyd) who is secretly in love with the new efficiency expert, Betty Ann "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). Fitz is not only a thorn in Briggs' style, but a threat to his reputation and future with the company. And, her bulldog fierceness doesn't allow her any latitude for diplomacy. She clearly thinks Briggs is a dinosaur, a worm, scummy, vermin, megalomaniacal, a mental deficient and all sorts of lowly creature which she liberally points out to him while he comes back with a few observations of his own, about her, in a continuous contest of "I can demean you more!"

At an office celebration at a local nightclub, a magician cum hypnotist, Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), pulls Briggs and Fitz up to the stage and, swaying a pendant in the form of a jade scorpion before their eyes, hypnotizes them by giving each a different code word to put them under. Under hypnosis and to emphasize its true effectiveness, Voltan has these two natural enemies in love, ready to smother each other in kisses and adoration. The office team is in shock at this as Voltan brings them back with no memory of it, but without releasing them from the effects of their code words. Hence, "curse".

Now in thrall to their master, they are going to be his proxy in pulling off some complicated heist and getting in deep trouble.

As though compeletely unphased by criticism following his unsuccessful romantic charade in "Deconstructing Harry", Allen cleverly attempts to meet the challenge of his age, look and stature by creating an attractive woman combatant, 30 years his junior, who puts him down at every turn, lessening the need for cries of protestation from a trusting audience. But wait, oh wait. As an audience you'll be tested on this feature of the work. But it does allow him to capitalize on his comedic outpour with almost unrestrained one-upmanship, always a source of laughs, if somewhat obvious. An old-timey insurance company never echoed with such hilarity.

His band of players do their best in support of the comedy master with Dan Aykroyd as a straight, overstiff, hypocrite of a boss, overplaying the part as though he was doing vaudeville. He was clearly misguided by the melodramatic aspects of the production. Charlize Theron is stylishly perfect as a period siren, helping the illusion of the forties look but never overcoming the pretext for her character's "attraction" to this little old detective.

Elizabeth Berkley is too beautiful to be called the office bimbo (Jill) but she plays her affection for the ageing detective with sweet aplomb.

Most supportive of all, though, is Helen Hunt who pulls out her range of acting skills to flesh out the script's shrewishly demanding perfectionist according to Allen's blueprint. But the effort is somewhat off target. Her Fitz is so cold as to put a chill on the movie. But, perhaps we shouldn't argue with the master's comedic liberties.

Allen's use of the 40s noir detective melodrama was ably realized visually by Director of Photography Zhao Fei, set designer Santa Loquasto and costume designer Suzanne McCabe who outdid herself on Theron's sultry gowns.

Every Allen movie is good for a few laughs and a stream of sometimes witty sometimes flat dialogue. Which may sound to some fans as faint praise. That's fair when the level of enjoyment is something less than deep in the belly. Comedy is a matter of taste, and those with a continuing appetite for Allen's style will likely love this latest episode in a somewhat unexpected context. And, though the praise is faint, it is praise for a picture that is among the better works from this dependable moviemaker, which includes 2000's "Small Time Crooks" and 1999's "Sweet and Lowdown".

Now, if Allen would only find a vehicle for his wry quip machine that has nothing to do with a frail 66 year old man's romantic magnetism for the babes. Woody, Woody, it's untenable.

Estimated cost: $26,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $8,000,000.

Rated S, for Stretching the limits.

                                      ~~  The Filmiliar Cineaste  

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Woody Allen and Helen Hunt battling in
"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion"
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