Woody Allen, highly regarded as one of the most reliable filmmakers of the last twenty-five years, has always excelled most with the sharp dialogue he writes for his actors. Almost always, going to see a "Woody Allen movie" ensures that you will have a thoroughly enjoyable experience with some added substance to chew on once the end credits roll. With any great director, however, comes the occasional misstep, and his latest picture, the film noir comedy "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," is Allen's weakest since 1992's "Shadows and Fog."
Set in 1940s Manhattan, C.W. Briggs (Woody Allen) is a hardworking crack fraud investigator at an insurance company who also happens to have a wandering eye. Everyone gets along with C.W., except new efficiency expert Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), who finds herself calling him a "rat," "cockroach," "snake," or any number of other vermin, every time she sees him. While out at a club one night, C.W. and Betty are put under hypnosis by a magician, leaving them feeling uncontrollably in love with one another each time the words, "Madagascar" and "Constantinople," are uttered. With the hypnosis never fully lifted, C.W. and Betty begin receiving mysterious phone calls during the night instructing them to steal various jewels around the city, only to not remember any of it the following morning. With the insurance company they work for, as well as the police, hot on their trail, C.W. and Betty, when not trading insulting barbs, are left clueless as to why all of the evidence points to them.
1995's "Mighty Aphrodite." 1996's "Everyone Says I Love You." 1998's "Celebrity." 2000's "Small Time Crooks." All of these recent films by Woody Allen all have one thing in common: unforgettable characters in fascinating stories who speak nothing but honest, sly dialogue. "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" places a notch or two below Allen's norm, as the writing isn't as consistently witty, the comedic jabs aren't quite as funny, and the story meanders for longer than it should. At 104 minutes, the film is lengthier than the usual Allen piece, and with thin material that simply isn't up to his usual high standards, it wears out its welcome by the halfway mark.
A couple classic Allen zingers do occasionally shine through, with my favorite taking place between C.W. and sultry vixen Laura Kensington (Charlize Theron). Laura, exposing her nude body from under her raincoat, announces that she's going to slip into something more comfortable. "Slip into something more comfortable?!" C.W. exasperatedly replies. "What are you gonna put on? Jergens lotion?" Betty's constant string of put-downs for C.W. also spark the energy level up a bit, although they are no match for Tracey Ullman's priceless line deliveries in "Small Time Crooks."
What does remain solid in "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" are strong, natural performances across the board. Woody Allen and Helen Hunt (2000's "Castaway") make a lovely comedy team, and Hunt delights in sinking her teeth into Allen's mainstay dialogue. The frequently underused Dan Aykroyd (2001's "Pearl Harbor") gets good screen time as Chris Magruder, who is not only C.W. and Betty's boss at the insurance company, but also the married man Betty is having an affair with. In a smallish role that stands out, Charlize Theron (2001's "Sweet November") shines as the sexy, opium-smoking Laura Kensington. The other notable players--Wallace Shawn, Brian Markinson, David Ogden Stiers, and Elizabeth Berkley--successfully fulfill the requirements of their slight parts.
Only sporadically funny and surprisingly dry, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" doesn't work, yet it offers up just enough cute moments and bright star turns to come off as a promising failure. Allen has always been a fast-moving director who churns out no less than one movie with each passing year, and while this has rarely posed a problem in the past, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" stands as a comedy that could have used some more work before being committed to celluloid.
©2001 by Dustin Putman