The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
review by Gregory Avery, 24 August 2001

In his new picture, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Allen plays C.W. Briggs, an investigator for an insurance company in New York City in 1940, and in the opening scenes he's seen striding, or rather stomping, down the hall of the company offices to confront the newly-hired efficiency expert, who is commonly addressed as Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), to tell her that he wants his files put back where they were "RIGHT NOW." The way Allen's character says the word "right," it comes out with a swoop of emphasis, as if this were the kind of guy who puts things down and expects them to be there, no matter where he set them, when he wanted to pick them up again, and he's not about to change his habits, now. For her part, Helen Hunt's tall, unflappable Fitzgerald looks imperiously down at Briggs and tells him, no, the office files are being consolidated to make things easier and less costly in the long run, and, after all, this is 1940, a new age, and if he doesn't like it, try not stepping off the curb in front of a bus and getting mangled beyond all recognition. Upon which, Allen's Briggs is reduced to blustering his way back out the door to her office, and you know that the two of them are going to end up together, somehow, by the time the end credits roll.

As you may have gathered, Allen's new film turns out to be an essentially sweet-spirited homage and evocation of the old-style comedy mystery, ones like the 1943 A Night to Remember, where Brian Aherne and Loretta Young traded affectionate wisecracks while poking around their Greenwich Village apartment house; and with a dash of the sexual sparring of films like His Girl Friday, where the barbs only went to further reveal how much the leading man and lady really and truly loved each other. Whenever they have a set-to, Briggs resorts to telling Fitzgerald that the only other person he possibly dislikes more than her is "that little German chancellor with the mustache," while she invariably categorizes him as something like "a slimy little inchworm"; when he goes to sit on her couch, she jumps and tells him not to or else she'll have to have it "fumigated." So, of course, it is these two who end up participating in a nightclub act -- performed, no less, on the floor of the Rainbow Room, in Rockefeller Center -- by a stage magician (David Ogden Stiers, who's perfect in the film): he puts them under a trance and has them make like they're madly in love with each other, but he's also setting them up for something far more nefarious. Upon the utterance of a key word, either of them can fall immediately into a trance, after which they follow his instructions on how and where to carry out a burglary, under the cover of night, and then wake up the next morning with no recollection of what they've done. "The Jade Scorpion so commands!" says the magician to his hapless lackeys, just like in the old radio mystery programs.

There's even a femme fatale: Laura Kensington, who looks like both of General Sternwood's daughters in The Big Sleep rolled into one. She's played by Charlize Theron, with a cascade of blond hair down one side of her face and a wiggle in her chassis, and Theron is wonderful, making her character into a voluptuously tempting Pandora's Box wrapped up in chenille and furs and tied with a bow (Theron previously played the fashion model in Allen's Celebrity, who took to the runway, both legs pumping, like a steam engine). She's only in a couple of scenes, albeit important ones, but she's gangbusters and pretty much steals most of the movie in the process.

Allen's C.W. Briggs is initially presented as being a swaggering braggart who's a womanizer (at one point, he explains that all women "look the same upside-down") and flirts with all the pretty office girls (one of whom is played by Elizabeth Berkley, who looks great as a brunette, by the way). This is the type of character you would not expect to see Allen playing in a movie, and in fact is the sort that he used to ruthlessly parody in his earlier films. By chance, he learns that Fitzgerald is having an affair with the boss (Dan Aykroyd) of the insurance company, who keeps stringing her along with the promise that he'll be getting a divorce from his wife (shades of Billy Wilder's The Apartment). Briggs then tries to help Fitzgerald: shouldn't a smart, strong woman like her know better than to get mixed up with a guy like this? And that's when the comically nervous, scrambling little guy whom Allen usually plays starts coming through and takes control. For her part, however, Helen Hunt comes across as frankly intimidated, by the part and by playing opposite Woody Allen (In fact, she admitted as much in the press, recently). In many scenes, she seems sullen, spiky, and dispirited, but she gives it a good try, even though when she does work up some steam in her comic exchanges with Allen, her delivery sounds, surprisingly, like Diane Keaton in the films Keaton made with Allen, with the exception that Keaton knew how to hold her own onscreen while not letting it affect her comic timing or the freshness of her performance.

Allen may have written Curse of the Jade Scorpion after the manner of the crackling, fast-exchange movie comedies that were being made at the time this movie is set, but he directs it more like a reverie of temps perdu, so the movie has a disparity that affects everyone and everything in it, although, if you can find a way to settle into it, it turns out to be mostly agreeable, the dialogue is pretty good, and there is some impeccable casting, from Theron, Aykroyd and Stiers on to Brian Markinson, who does an outstanding job playing Briggs' pal and co-worker Al, and, as a street-corner con artist, the veteran Dadaist comedian Irwin Corey. Hunt does a little better, too, in the closing scenes, when her character stops trying to be Rosalind Russell or Jean Arthur and takes on a more romantic persona, which is what the movie really turns out to be. Aside from being a period piece -- filmed by cinematographer Zhao Fei in a golden glow, and with production design by Santo Loquasto that is a knockout -- The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is about how the "real" person exists under their outward, everyday persona. C.W. Briggs turns out to be really more respectful towards women than he lets on, while Fitzgerald turns out to be not nearly as acerbic as we think she is. But, the film adds quietly, near the end, you gotta make concessions. While it has neither the crippling ennui that afflicted Celebrity, nor the vaulting qualities that lift up and distinguish Allen's best films, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is a film that can be enjoyed, as long as you can make some concessions to it, as well.

Written and
Directed by:

Woody Allen

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

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned
Some material ma
be inappropriate for
children under 13

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