Throughout his career Woody Allen has bounced back and forth between no-holds-barred, anything-for-a-joke comedy and more cerebral (although still often comic) reflections on the state of contemporary humankind. He was content to be silly in his TV appearances in the 1950s but became a smash college concert performer in the 1960s, lacing his stand-up routines with references to classic Russian literature and existential philosophy.
His first films as a director in the late 1960s and early 1970s were laugh riots, and he stood admittedly ready to sacrifice both character and plot for one more gag. An air of change arrived with Love and Death (1975), a farce with altogether serious themes. Then came Annie Hall (1977), probably Allen's most enduringly popular film. Love is real and essential, but it often fails. The 1980s brought darkness in films like September (1987), Another Woman (1988) and the brilliant Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). The 1990s saw a return to funnier work, even as Allen deliberately chose dislikable protagonists in films like Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999). And in still another turn, the new millennium has brought light, frothy films, well-made and pleasing but less essential than their predecessors. That was the case with last year's Small Time Crooks, and it's true again of Allen's current The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.
Both written and directed by Allen as usual, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is the pre-World-War-II story of insurance investigator C.W. Briggs (Allen) and his unlikely romance with corporate efficiency expert Betty Ann "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). Fitz is hired by her lover, Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd), to modernize and restructure his insurance company. Among her ideas is to get rid of in-house investigation and rely on case-by-case contracts with private investigation firms. His job in jeopardy, C.W. takes an instant dislike to Fitz, and his crudely sexist efforts to manipulate her set her teeth on edge. The reversal takes place at an employee nightclub outing when a mentalist named Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) hypnotizes both C.W. and Fitz and induces them to declare their passion for each other to the snorting delight of their co-workers. What follows is a light-hearted mixture of What Women Want and The Manchurian Candidate where the principals, like Mel Gibson and Hunt herself, spar professionally and spark hypnotically while Voltan uses post-hypnotic control to turn both into Laurence Harvey felons, this time jewel thieves rather than assassins.
One wonders how much longer Allen will dare continue casting himself as a romantic lead. The tactic worked magically in the 1970s when Annie Hall's Alvy Singer and Manhattan's Isaac Davis made up with intelligence and razor-sharp humor for what Allen obviously lacked in raw physical appeal. That dichotomy, of course, was the central romantic focus as Allen's characters wooed beauties like Diane Keaton in the '70s and Mia Farrow in the '80s.
Two problems, though, constrict Allen's successfully employing that strategy in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. First, while Allen gets older, his romantic quarry stay the same age. Allen is 24 years older (and looking every day of it) than he was when he and Keaton worked together in Annie Hall, while Hunt, like Keaton in the '70s, is still in her 30s. Second, in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Allen has varied the formula of his own character in a way that doesn't serve his story. Alvy and Isaac, like Allen's Mickey Saxe from Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Cliff Stern from Crimes and Misdemeanors are talented, even brilliant men. But they are also damaged by neurotic self-doubt. These earlier characters balance on a fulcrum of self-awareness redeemed by self-effacing humor and self-destruction born of self-pity. We root for these earlier characters to overcome their flaws because they so keenly know their limitations. C.W. Briggs in stark contrast, however, is a strutting bantam rooster, cock-sure of his own talents and largely blind to how others may see the world. Allen redeems him by evincing C.W.'s native compassion. But the filmmaker doesn't make us like C.W. the way we want to, and Allen's trademark flutterings prove puzzling and out of place. In short, in more ways than one, Allen has miscast himself.
Moreover, like an old steam locomotive straining into motion, the first part of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion creaks rather than zips. Picasso jokes about Cubism and women with guitars prove too clever by half. Eventually, though, despite its casting problems, the film gathers momentum and delivers a satisfying ride. Luscious Charlize Theron checks in for a deft take on femme fatale, one part Lauren Bacall, one part Veronica Lake. The writing finds its rhythm and produces a series of cackling laughs. And the picture's twisty plot, suggesting that sometimes you have to convict yourself of crimes you didn't know you'd committed, works as a nifty metaphor for romantic as well as professional success.
- Woody Allen (left) and Helen Hunt fall under the spell of David Ogden Stiers in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.