The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

'Scorpion' Has No Sting

By Desson Howe

AS RONALD Reagan used to say: There he goes again.

The "he" is Woody Allen. The movie is "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion." And despite an appealing, even ingenious premise, "Scorpion" is another quippy but uninspired comedy in which well-known actors – apparently chosen with madcap randomness – throw on their roles like last-minute Halloween costumes and do their bit for The Great One.

The warning signs that this movie is Allen business as usual are early – namely, those familiar (dare we say Allenesque?) white opening credits that appear on plain, black background with yet another old-time tune on the soundtrack. To Allen, they may be testament to his signature style. But to the audience, they scream: same darn thing all over again.

Allen plays C.W. Briggs, an insurance detective in the 1940s, who prides himself on having New York's keenest nose for fraudulent claims. But when the office hires efficiency expert Betty Ann "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt) to revamp the company, Briggs's professional days seem numbered.

Fitz considers Briggs, who keeps scattered records, works without supervision and chases skirts, to be a dinosaur fit for immediate retirement. He thinks of her as a cold, evil robot. It's clear, according to the screwball rules governing this picture, they're destined for a long war and an eventual romance.

When Fitz and Briggs are pressed to volunteer for the hypnotist Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), their animosity is turned against them. Voltan puts them into a trance and, to the amusement of the crowd, makes them exchange sweet nothings.

Voltan's dark motives become clear, later, when he uses his hypnotic techniques to make Briggs rob several wealthy mansions. Briggs, unaware that he's become an unconscious jewel thief, launches an energetic investigation to catch the perpetrator.

His prime suspect becomes Fitz. But when physical evidence links Briggs to the crimes, the bewildered investigator has to go on the run. The only person he can turn to is his archenemy, Fitz.

Allen-the-filmmaker apparently wants to comically accentuate his and Hunt's physical differences. She towers over him like Alice to the hookah-toking caterpillar. But the effect is more jarring than ticklish. Allen seems to be aiming for our hearts. We're supposed to actually warm to the idea of this rumpled old fella finding true love with the beautiful office harpie. Allen tries to acclimatize us to this cringe-inducing idea by creating an existing office affair between Fitz and the married office manager Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd). Hunt's smart, witty Fitz seems extremely unlikely to admit either of these buffoons into her private life.

"Check your sex," says Fitz, when Briggs shakes his head over her affair with Magruder. "There's not a lot to pick from."

Certainly not in this movie.

Fitz, it turns out, isn't the only one who falls for Briggs. Allen creates two other attractive women (played by Elizabeth Berkley and Charlize Theron) who express desire for the diminutive sexagenarian. You've got to hand it to him for chutzpah.

To say there's an absence of chemistry between Allen and Hunt could be the understatement of the year. Even though Allen inserts workmanlike comic jibes into both characters' mouths, the one-liners land with a clunk.

"You can't sleep here," says Fitz when the fugitive Briggs shows up in her apartment. "I couldn't afford the fumigating bills."

And so on.

Be sure to tune in next fall when another Allen film, with white credits on black background, a round of guest stars, and a box office take of less than $5 million, marks the autumn months. This dismal annual event has become something you can depend on, like death and taxes.

© Copyright The Washington Post Company