A scene from 'The Curse of the Jade Scorpion'
Courtesy Photo
**1/2 stars 103 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, August 17, 2001
Written & directed by Woody Allen

Starring Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Elizabeth Berkley, Brian Markinson, Wallace Shawn, David Ogden Stiers, Charlize Theron


Period flavor and most of the film's laughs should come across fine on the small screen, but Woody Allen has been better.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 01.29.2002


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Writer-director exhausts his comedy hallmarks as a hypnotized insurance dick unwittingly investigating himself

By Rob Blackwelder

It's a very convincing 1940 in Woody Allen's "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," and impetuous Howard Hawks-style love-hate sniping -- infused with the requisite Allen neuroticism -- is the foundation of this comedy about an insurance detective hot on the trail of the cagiest jewel thief he's ever encountered: Himself.

Allen stars as C.W. Briggs, his company's best (or is it just luckiest?) in-house dick for the last 30 years. You can tell C.W. thinks he's a pretty smooth cat because he walks with a saucy bounce in his step and chases young secretaries around the office. He's the guy who found a stolen Picasso rolled up in a telescope, after all. "And it wasn't easy," he boasts, "because I was supposed to be looking for a painting of a woman holding a guitar, but it was in all these little cubes!"

But C.W. is stuck in his ways, and these days he spends most of his energy butting heads like a stubborn billy goat with the company's new tough-as-nails efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). She thinks his department is obsolete and that the firm should hire out when it needs a detective.

At first, of course, C.W. tried to sweet-talk Betty Ann. But she put the kibosh on that, growling, "I'm not one of those little wind-up dolls you can tickle at the water cooler." Now he's nervous about his job -- and it doesn't help that he can't solve a string of jewelry heists from the burglar-alarmed homes of the company's richest clients.

What C.W. doesn't know is that he's his own culprit. During an office outing, he and Betty Ann are dragged on stage and hypnotized by Voltan the Magician (David Ogden Stiers), who doesn't remove the spell when he's done with his trick. That midnight, Voltan calls C.W. and puts him in a safecracking trance, turning the insurance gumshoe into a sleep-walking, bobble-boosting, completely clueless minion with amnesia.

With such a zany set-up and all the biting banter, "Curse" should be a capriciously entertaining lark. But while the movie does feel like quintessential Allen fare, it just doesn't have his usual panache. Even at age 65, Allen himself shows some youthful spark, and he looks pretty swell in those wide-lapel suits. But Hunt, while certainly droll, comes off dry and distant. Most of the other actors (Dan Aykroyd as C.W.'s boss, Wallace Shawn, Brian Markinson, and Elizabeth Berkeley as co-workers) seem under-rehearsed and hammy. Even supernaturally sexy Charlize Theron, as a Veronica Lake femme fatale who goes slumming and seduces C.W., isn't a terribly convincing vamp.

The plot thickens when the evidence catches up with C.W., and Betty Ann is the only person who believes he's innocent -- even though she's the one who found the jewels in his apartment. C.W. is, in turn, convinced Betty Ann is the true bandit. He's half right -- Voltan has her subconscious by the puppet strings too.

"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is at is funniest when Allen and Hunt are trading insults. They get so wrapped up in the wily joy of one-upping each other that the jabs quickly become convoluted, absurdly complex, and almost paragraphs long.

The film is at its least funny when either of them is hypnotized and suddenly becomes obliviously -- and therefore suspiciously -- affectionate. A lot of time is spent on the stage business of these two waking up in each other's apartments with no memory of the evening's events, and such scenes play more as obligatory than scintillating.

Allen's script doesn't have much of a last act, either. The story resolves far too easily -- as if the plot was never that important to him -- and the way the bickering leads conclude their rivalry is insincere, out of character and out of left field.

Fans of Allen's films (I count myself among them) will find things to like in this picture. It has its moments. But it's just not lucid, nimble and memorable the way his better pictures always are.


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