Curse of the Jade Scorpion, The (2001) **
Written and directed by Woody Allen. Photography, Zhao Fei. Editing, Alisa Lepselter. Production design, Santo Loquasto. Produced by Letty Aronson Cast: Woody Allen (C. W. Briggs), Elizabeth Berkley (Jill), Brian Markinson (Al), Helen Hunt (Betty Ann Fitzgerald), Wallace Shawn (George Bond), Dan Aykroyd (Chris Magruder), David Ogden Stiers (Voltan) and Charlize Theron (Laura Kensington). A DreamWorks release. 103 minutes. PG-13.
Oy ve! I am wearing a black arm-band, as a sign of mourning. Woody Allen may have made some duds in his career, but most of his films in the last three decades of the 1900s have placed him in the Pantheon of "auteurs" and among the colossi of comedy and humor, from the great clowns (Chaplin, Keaton, etc.) to the Marx Brothers, to the majors of the Golden Age of American Comedy (e.g. W.C. Fields, Lubitsch, Mamoulian, Hawks, Capra, Wilder, Sturges, and others.) In more recent times, Woody was up there in the Olympus of Comedy, with creators of styles as disparate as Mel Brooks or the Monty Pythons.
Our debt to Woody is such that it hurts to pan "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion." At the multiplex where I saw it, the movie was in a special theater optimistically labeled "Art." This means in theory smaller or foreign or special-audience pictures for connoisseurs (as opposed to the Great Unwashed), films that won't make the money generated by the ocean of mainstream works which reflect times of loudness, vulgarity and simple-mindedness. In other words, "art" in this context equals "film ghetto."
Since Wood's "oeuvre" is quintessentially American, very New Yorkish and full of Jewish humor, it is baffling that it has a far bigger following in Europe than in the USA. But in the case of "Jade Scorpion" I really cannot imagine any successes, whether at home or abroad.
The picture, set in 1940, does capture some of the ambiance of that time. Allen plays C. W. Briggs, the very able investigator (of frauds and such) of a Manhattan insurance company. He is supposed to be a ladies' man, but this is murkily shown. The company, which is in decline, has rather recently hired efficiency expert Betty Ann Fitzgerald aka "Fitz" (Helen Hunt.) The changes she makes (e.g. filing systems) infuriate C.W. who makes no bones about it. This leads to total hatred between him and Fitz who is supposed to be as bright as they come but against all verisimilitude is having a heavy affair with manager Magruder (Dan Aykroyd) whom she wants to marry after he divorces his wife.
During an office party in a nightclub. Magician/hypnotist Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) calls C.W. and Fitz to the stage, hypnotizes them into feeling they are madly in love with each other. Voltan also assigns each one a magic word (Constantinople and Madagascar) which, as the plot thickens, he will utter on the telephone to C.W. whom he puts in a trance. He orders him to go and steal jewelry insured by the company. Then a de-hypnotized C.W. investigates the theft without knowing that he was the culprit. The hypnotism premise has been used before in a number of comedies.
Later on, Fitz herself is also manipulated by Voltan's password, thus adding complications to the tale, but not complexities. I'll skip the developments, which are forced and not half as entertaining as those of Bud Abbott-Lou Costello flick, not to mention most of Woody's movies.
What this opus does above all is to hammer the antagonism between Mr. Allen and Ms. Hunt. The fact that the duo is respectively 65 and 38 years old does not help. Not that a June-November pairing is unacceptable, but here it is far too gratuitous. The facts that Woody's physique is not a thing of beauty, that Woody keeps pushing to the limit all his familiar mannerisms and speech habits does not help either. It is a pleonastic performance. For her part, Helen Hunt too is a one-note presence. So, the movie boils down to a wearisome marathon of mutual insults.
To be fair, there are some good moments. As C.W. investigates the theft at the Kensington mansion, cigarette-smoking Charlize Theron (as the boozing, man-hungry yet cool Laura Kensington) suddenly appears in a doorway in a scene that has to be an affectionate parody of Lauren Bacall's visit to Humphrey Bogart in "To Have and Have Not," while her looks and getup are Veronica Lake-like. The camera flatters her, which it certainly not the case with Ms. Hunt.
When it comes to efficiency experts, nothing beats "Desk Set" (1957) in which expert Spencer Tracy and a TV network's head researcher Katharine Hepburn first clash, then fall in love.