The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

To the best of my knowledge, you donít see diehard Woody Allen fans camping outside a theater on New Yorkís Upper West Side to be the first one to see the maitreís latest. For someone who once bemoaned that he was not Bergman, Mr. Allen is putting out his flicks with un-cineaste frequency. Some might even call it haste.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is the ninth film Allen has directed since Husbands and Wives, in almost as many years, and if you look at these films, whatís there to suffer and deliberate about? Not over Small Time Crooks and certainly not over Celebrity; this is le maitre on autopilot. Round up the cast (Iím still waiting to see a headline -- perhaps in The National Enquirer -- "I Turned Down a Part in a Woody Allen Movie"), spray the project with a mist of mystery, garner the Best Screenplay nomination, and donít show up for the awards.

Anyone who has kept track of Allenís latest knows The Curse of the Jade Scorpion right away: a period comedy a la Radio Days, or Bullets Over Broadway, or The Purple Rose of Cairo -- no surprises. As they say on, "if you like X, youíll also like Y."

The film opens with the subtitle "New York City, 1940," just to make sure you donít think itís Beijing, 1989. Anyway, the first half of the film is quite enjoyable. You settle into it like into an old couch, where even the springs cutting into your behind have a familiar feel to them. Woody plays C.W. Briggs, an old-time shamus, flatfoot, you name it; a street-smart Philip Marlowe in the body of an aged Jewish bookkeeper. Unfortunately, the companyís CEO (Dan Aykroyd, as bloated as Jiminy Glick) hired Betty Ann, an "efficiency expert" (Helen Hunt, steel magnolia, northern style), who sees her task as "streamlining the operation." An anachronism like C.W. does not belong in her world: the investigation department will be outsourced.

As usual, Allen surrounded himself with a capable supporting cast -- John Schuck, Wallace Shawn, and especially Elizabeth Berkley, who puts to good clean comic use her sexiness so abused in Showgirls. Itís an old-fashioned pleasure to see the jokes pop out at machine-gun speed, with the usual accoutrements of rolled-up eyes and double takes, though, technically speaking, itís more like Your Show of Shows than a Ď40s screwball comedy. The latter comes alive in the Allen-Hunt love-hate exchanges, andÖouch. Hunt is at home with quick repartees a la Mad About You, but here Allen often awards her jokes so long that she sounds dangerously running out of breath. So sheís not quite Hepburn, but Allen isnít Tracy, either, though wrinkle-wise heís getting close to the Tracy of Itís a Mad (3) World. So is there chemistry or not? I asked my companion, who is the furthest thing from a feminist you can imagine, and I heard a sigh that said volumes. I guess itís okay for le maitre to have a love interest who looks like his daughter, but not like his granddaughter. Never mind those echoes of Soon Yi; back to the picture.

The jokes still keep flying as the plot moves into film noir territory. See, in 1940 it was customary for working drudges like Allen and Co. to relax after work at The Rainbow Room (a good reason to feel nostalgic), which had variety shows with magicians and hypnotizers. Presto, squanto -- both CW and Betty Ann are in deep trance, with key words like Constantinople and Madagascar (names of foreign places are always good for a laugh) implanted in their subconscious. Unless youíve never seen a Hollywood hypnotist (Telefon, anyone? Good old Charlie Bronson? How about Hot Rock with Robert Redford?), you know that this one, played by David Ogden Stiers with his trademark panache, is up to no good. Soon enough, CW picks up the phone and is instructed to go rob a mansion. (As the companyís expert, he has access to the security system.) And he doesnít remember a thing afterwards.

Thatís a nice premise, and Allen works it like a pro, having CW investigating his own crimes all the way to being handcuffed at the amazingly clean and underpopulated police precinct. But then he escapes, abetted by Charlize Theronís society vamp, and ends up on Betty Annís couch, and the plot engine begins sputtering. Hey, (unlike in a real film noir) we know whatís really going on, which puts on the filmmaker a heavier burden of entertaining us. But it is almost as if Allen himself got tired of the joke. By the time the evil magician recruits the hapless Betty Ann as an unwitting partner in crime, the interest begins to fade. Thereís also a subplot where the CEO carries on a romance with Betty Ann -- why? Just for historical authenticity? Just because itís yet another Ď40s clichť, on the order of the music and dťcor, recreated so lovingly? Ah well. Eventually the two threads come together, providing a last-minute surprise -- a rather lame one, at that.

So what we have here is yet another period piece, a light entertainment from one of the leading American filmmakers. Itís a casual little cocktail party with dainty tasty canapes, but after almost two hours the stomach begins to rumble, and you catch yourself yearning for more substantial fare. It might make a good double feature with Husbands and Wives, for example. So I keep asking myself the question: if Allen feels so nostalgic about the films of the Ď30s and the Ď40s, donít I have a right to feel just as nostalgic about his movies of the Ď70s and the Ď80s, be it the no-holds-barred zaniness of Take the Money and Run, the sophisticated humor of Zelig, or the elegant ruminations of Crimes and Misdemeanors? If you can make something great, how long can you keep settling for something thatís merely amusing?

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]

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Movie Web site: The Curse of the Jade Scorpion



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