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Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Woody Allen might be the most prolific major director working today. Every year, either in the summer or fall, he releases a new comedy starring himself (or an obvious stand-in of himself) as a nebbish struggling with life, work, and the opposite sex. Some years, Woody seems angry at the world or himself--Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity. Other times, he's in a more light-hearted mode--Bullets over Broadway,
Everyone Says I Love You, Small Time Crooks.

This year's edition, Curse of the Jade Scorpion , is decidedly in the latter camp. An old-fashioned farce, it stars Allen as CW Briggs, an insurance company investigator in 1940 whose street smarts and intuition help him track down stolen merchandise. Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets) is Betty Ann Fitzgerald, a new woman in the office who's been hired as an efficiency expert to clean the place up. As it turns out, she's also sleeping with the boss, Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd, Driving Miss Daisy).

With their contrasting styles, CW and Betty Ann are continually at each other's throats. He makes not-so-subtle jabs about her gender, she belittles his masculinity. Then one evening, at an office party, CW and Betty Ann are both put under deep hypnosis by the performer Voltan (David Ogden Stiers, television's M*A*S*H). By using special words, 'Constantinople' for CW and 'Madagascar' for Betty Ann, Voltan actually gets the two combatants to fall in love with each other. But when they wake up, they're back to their bickering selves with no memory of their hypnotic romance.

What neither they nor their office workers realize, however, is that Voltan can re-summon the hypnotic trance, just by saying the magic word. His goal isn't love, though, but money. He calls CW in the middle of the night and,
after uttering 'Constantinople,' sends CW off to the Kensington estate to steal some expensive jewels from a safe. The next morning CW, who has no recollection of the previous night, comes into work to discover that he has
a new case: the Kensington robbery.

What ensues is about what you'd expect. CW, thinking it has to be someone connected with the insurance company (how else did the thief crack the security system?), suspects Betty Ann. In a nice touch, Betty Ann doesn't suspect CW at all ("he's too mealy-mouthed and timid"), even as the various clues begin to point his way.

After last year's dull Small Time Crooks, Woody Allen is back in form as a put-upon office man who'd much rather be betting on the horses and pinching the secretary's behind than battling it out with a female manager. He has
some great one-liners ("it's a match made in heaven . . . by a retarded angel"), and his comic instincts when he's under hypnosis are hilarious. The hang-dog expression he has when in a trance provoked chuckles from the
audience every time.

Unfortunately, Helen Hunt isn't as good. Admittedly, she has the more difficult role as a hard-nosed, unsympathetic adversary, but still her character seems flat and her line readings often miss the mark. She has a
recurring joke about CW dying in some horrible accident, and it's never funny. I'm beginning to wonder if the promise Hunt showed in As Good As it Gets might have been a one-hit wonder. What seemed fresh and Oscar-worthy in that film now seems formulaic and dull. That was true in last year's Dr. T and the Women, and it's especially true in Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast is first-rate. Dan Aykroyd really should forget the contemporary comedies he's known for and instead focus on nice-guy characters from the '40s and '50s. He was great in movies like Driving Miss Daisy and My Girl, and he does a nice job here. Elizabeth Berkley should also take a cue from this film. Her sweet secretary is in stark contrast to the conniving women she's played in movies like Showgirls and First Wives Club, and it fits her much better. Charlize Theron, doing her best impression of Veronica Lake, is more of a plot device than a character, but she still embodies that old-world allure.

Woody Allen hasn't made a truly great comedy since Bullets Over Broadway, and Curse of the Jade Scorpion certainly doesn't measure up to that standard. But it is an enjoyable diversion with enough good laughs and
acting to keep a sophisticated audience entertained. If you imagine each Woody film as a sequel to the previous one, this year's installment is a step up. 

J. Robert Parks 8/29/2001

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