The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Woody Allen's Mild 'Curse'

Doomed to Chuckles Instead of Guffaws

By Stephen Hunter

If I call Woody Allen's "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" the best big American movie of the summer, I'm not exactly complimenting it. Take the competition – please, take the competition.

So this mid-level, pretty-but-not-hugely-funny Allen film slips into the top spot by regretful default. I enjoyed every single second of it, a little bit.

The best thing about it is the beautifully rendered setting: art deco New York, 1940, where the cars are sleek and black, the offices warmly lighted, the foyers encrusted with streamlined gewgaws, the trench coats baggy, the fedoras crushed. Everyone smokes, all the women wear nylons with garters and high heels. Is this paradise or what? You'd think if they'd go to all this trouble, they'd at least make a terrific movie instead of only an amusing one.

Once it gets going, it paws out a chuckle now and then, and generally it's so pleasant it eats the minutes up like popcorn. It just never reaches that moment of pure explosive gut-breakage that used to be where Woody Allen made his living. One problem is how long it takes to get going. Another problem is that once it gets going, it doesn't hit high gear either.

The venue is an insurance agency, where the Woodman is supposedly an investigator of the old school. Where is Sam Spade when you need him? What about Philip Marlowe? But no, we're stuck with Woody's CW Briggs, whose size 7 feet can't quite fill the size 12s of a real '40s shamus. He's supposed to be a curmudgeon, but take it from me, curmudgeons don't whine. They bluster, they fume, they rant, they brood, they lecture, but they don't whine. Woody's CW whines a bit much for anybody's good.

The initial situation seems purloined from Thurber's great 1942 story, "The Catbird Seat." In the movie, like the story, the old pro is assailed by a Bright Young Thing of the enemy sex in the guise of an efficiency expert. This is Helen Hunt as no-nonsense Betty Ann "Fitz" Fitzgerald, who longs to improve CW's office by alphabetizing his files, checking the addition on his expense accounts, and generally expecting him to act like an employee instead of a genius. He hates it when that happens.

But Allen as writer-director (his strongest suit in this film) veers away from Thurber in the next plot twist, and into the world of exaggerated farce: An office crowd goes to a nightclub, and there Fitz and CW are hypnotized by a henna-eyed Rasputin named Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) and comically made to pretend to be in love for the audience. The darker reality is that Voltan is a jewel thief, who by his mental wizardry now controls both Fitz and CW; he orders them to utilize their inside info to commit robberies while in a trance state – crimes that, once awakened, the two must try to solve.

Well, it's fun in a clunky, rattle-trappy kind of way, with other story lines thrown in to fill out the time. After going to all this trouble to set up such a gizmo plot, Allen seems to lose track of it and is far more interested in a subplot involving Fitz's secret affair with the boss, played in hefty oleaginous gooniness by the mountain known as Dan Aykroyd.

As is typical of late Allen, there are too many good actors in too many small roles; beside Aykroyd, Charlize Theron and Wallace Shawn can be seen scurrying around the edges, trying to play ensemble but really reminding you that they used to be bigger in better movies. The wisecracks hardly crack and are rarely wise; the in-one-state-and-out-the-other plotting, with Hunt and Allen in control one moment and puppets the next, yields much less laughter than it should.

And there is the issue of Allen's age (65). It's hard to accuse a man so self-aware, a man who has mined his own neuroses for such honest comedy, of a shallow sin like narcissism, but he does seem a bit long in the tooth for the quick-quipping, sexually vigorous CW. That bit of miscasting hamstrings the film. On the other hand, he's tried to put younger versions of himself before the camera – Kenneth Branagh in "Celebrity" and John Cusack in "Bullets Over Broadway" – and that hasn't quite worked out either.

What's he supposed to do, go somewhere and die? The answer is, I suppose, to keep on making shadows of his former work and amusing us halfway. In this plague season, halfway is a lot farther than most films go.

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