Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Wallace Shawn, David Ogden Stiers, Charlize Theron
It's lightweight Woody Allen, but even lightweight Woody Allen is better than most filmmakers' best efforts. In tone, it's probably closest to Manhattan Murder Mystery; in look it's nearer Radio Days. It has a fairly complex quasi-mystery plot and also works as a nifty parody of 1940s-style film noir, but at heart it's a romantic comedy -- and therein lies the movie's one marginal problem. At 66, Woody is getting just a little long in the tooth for the kind of romantic lead he plays here, especially when he casts himself opposite an actress nearly 30 years his junior. He gets away with it here only by virtue of his clever script, his appealing playing, and the fact that co-star Helen Hunt manages -- at the film's midway point, that is, after an awkward start -- to not only hold her own with Allen, but do so in a way that suggests she genuinely sees something in him, even though she doesn't want to. It works because The Curse of the Jade Scorpion makes the relationship seem intellectually plausible. When it tries too hard to become romantically believable in a more traditional sense (Woody kissing Helen Hunt and setting off fireworks, for example), it tends to falter. The fact is, Allen is at a crossroads, and needs to proceed very carefully lest he turn into the embarrassment that Bob Hope became in his later 1960s comedies. (Considering the huge debt Allen's screen persona and comic timing owe to Hope, the comparison is frighteningly apt.) Allen sidesteps the problem here by not casting himself opposite some weightless actress hired more for her cup-size than her intellect. All that to one side, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is an often delightful film, blessed with clever, funny lines and characters, gorgeously designed by Santo Loquasto, and perfectly photographed by Zhao Fei. The plot is a convoluted affair involving ace insurance investigator C.W. Briggs (Allen) -- who has just recovered a stolen Picasso (despite the fact that it took him hours just to find the nose on the painting) -- and his travails with efficiency expert Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Hunt), who wants to streamline the operation and put him out to pasture. Unbeknownst to him, Betty Ann is also involved in an affair with the head of the company, Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd, in a role that manages to combine the Fred MacMurray of Double Indemnity with the MacMurray of The Apartment). On an outing to celebrate a fellow employee's birthday, C.W. and Betty Ann find themselves the subjects for a display of hypnosis by nightclub mesmerist Voltan (David Ogden Stiers). What no one realizes is that Voltan never releases the pair from the key words ("Constantinople" for C.W., "Madagascar" for Betty Ann) that place them under his control. All he has to do is call them, say the key word, and they'll do his bidding -- not surprisingly, his bidding involves them using their inside knowledge to steal from the wealthy whose valuables are insured by Magruder's company. It's a solid, if fanciful, plot, but what makes it work are the steady barrage of one-liners from Allen's character and the interplay of the pair in their love-hate relationship. Allen may be looking his age, but time has not dimmed his delivery. Whether grudgingly admitting that Betty Ann is attractive while hedging the assessment by noting that in certain light she looks like Mussolini, or telling the drunken and suicidal Betty Ann, "I'd ask if you had any friends, but I already know the answer," he's still at the top of his form. In these moments, as in so many others in this intelligent and pleasantly adult comedy, Allen proves that he still has what it takes, even if he's edging towards potentially dangerous territory.