The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Marc Savlov

"I like your early, funny movies better," someone tells Allen's filmmaker alter-ego Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories, and it's difficult not to echo that sentiment in the real world as well. Allen, a director who in the past routinely fired off cinematic classics with the seeming ease of a man in love with his craft, hasn't produced a genuine classic since Crimes and Misdemeanors over a decade ago. His more recent output -- Celebrity, Bullets Over Broadway, the awful Deconstructing Harry -- have seemed less like Allen films than films made by an Allen disciple, and an embittered, inept one at that. Though even the least of his films can be counted on to provide at least some of the old comic zing, his latter-day projects -- one a year, every year -- have been almost too self-aware. It's Allen poking fun at Allen, the aging, Jewish, pseudo-intellectual who once stole a page from Groucho Marx's mammoth catalogue of insecurities by proclaiming, “I wouldn't want to join any club that would have me as a member,” and then proceeded to form his own club and bar anyone else from admittance. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion has plenty of terrific ideas bubbling just below the surface, but because the director never lets those notions burst forth, they just sit there, simmering. It's a tepid work, almost straight comedy, but the jokes Allen is employing are ones he's used before, to much better effect. Shades of The Purple Rose of Cairo echo in this film's oddly fantastic tale of mismatched love, but Purple Rose was Allen operating on all eight cylinders -- Jade Scorpion, on the other hand, needs a comic oil change, and fast. Allen cast himself in the romantic lead, and it's a role he's patently too old for. That's not an ageist slam on my part; the diminutive proto-Jew, all balding brow, nervous ticks, and shuffling feet, simply doesn't convey the emotional weight the part calls for. And pairing himself with Hunt only serves to emphasize Allen's knock-kneed senior status. The two don't match, and though I believe that was part of the director's plan, given the plot, there's still a mandatory chemistry entirely lacking. This is, after all, a romantic comedy, almost classic screwball in nature. Allen plays hard-boiled insurance fraud investigator C. W. Briggs, a Runyan-esque character who always gets his man (Allen even says so). Briggs' life is thrown into professional turmoil when his company's newly hired efficiency pro Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Hunt) arrives and takes an instant dislike to his unconventional style. When the two, along with their boss Magruder (Aykroyd) and fellow co-workers reluctantly take in a nightclub act featuring Stiers' larcenous hypnotist Voltan, they find themselves magically drawn to each other. Voltan also uses his long-acting hypno-skills to have them conduct a series of daring jewel thefts. Which is more unpalatable, being suckered into a life of crime, or being suckered into love? That's the film's central question, but The Curse of the Jade Scorpion fails to connect on anything but the most basic comic level. Despite Allen's usual excellent direction, it all plays like a TV-movie version of something else, Allen-lite. I'm sorry Mr. Bates, but I'd have to agree: I, too, liked your earlier work better.

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