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CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION, THE(director/writer: Woody Allen; cinematographer: Zhao Fei; editor: Alisa Lepselter; cast: Woody Allen (C. W. Briggs), Elizabeth Berkley (Jill), Brian Markinson (Al), Helen Hunt (Betty Ann Fitzgerald), Wallace Shawn (George Bond), Dan Aykroyd (Chris Magruder), David Ogden Stiers (Voltan), Charlize Theron (Laura Kensington); Runtime: 103; DreamWorks Pictures; 2001)
“A pleasant film that is not all that good as far as the crime caper story goes, but still is endearing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A pleasant film that is not all that good as far as the crime caper story goes, but still is endearing. It’s in the tradition of escapist Hollywood films, as it evokes a nostalgia for the B-films that the studios used to routinely put out. If you’re a fan of 1940s film noir, especially the classy Billy Wilder “Double Indemnity,” then this latest Woody Allen comedy/mystery film might appeal to you. Woody sets this film in 1940 and catches with amazing accuracy the upholstered apartment furnishings, the lingo of the times, and the clothing worn and hairstyles. It was like watching one of those B-films, but instead of being in B & W this one is a lazy color version. It’s the kind of faded out coloring that would have been used to make a 1940 film noir, if they were made in color. The retro scenes of all the interiors were exquisitely designed by Santo Loquasto and shot by Zhao Fei in mostly plum and gold colors that burnished on the screen.

The film is set in a NYC insurance office where 20 year veteran fraud investigator for the insurance firm, C.W. Briggs (Woody Allen), solves cases by intuition, luck, his contacts with street characters, and by knowing the ins and outs of the city. Briggs’s a slob at keeping an apartment, a bachelor womanizer (he had a short and bitter marriage), a losing gambler, and a man in his sixties who loves his job and the camaraderie he has among his fellow workers and has no other ambition except to score an occasional young tootsy and solve fraud cases. Into his satisfied life comes a brainy, slim blonde, efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), who has been hired six months ago by the boss, Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd), to modernize and streamline the place. Betty Ann has the upper-hand, even though he’s a star claims investigator. But Betty Ann’s sleeping with the married boss and chooses to make life difficult for the recalcitrant investigator. These two are opposites and hate each other resulting in a war of words, as Betty Ann rubs him the wrong way even further by changing the antiquated filing system Briggs is used to. The only satisfaction they get is from sounding each other out, as one-liners keep coming. When Briggs tries to smooth things over, he only makes things worse by taking her to a dive he hangs out in–Rocky’s bar.

Celebrating the birthday of his co-worker, George Bond (Wallace Shawn), an amateur magician, they go catch a nightclub magic act. The magician Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) uses Briggs and Fitz for subjects and hypnotizes them by having them gaze at the ‘Jade Scorpion’ pendant and orders them to fall in love with each other, which his coworkers find very amusing. But the evil magician has other plans, as he never releases them from being under his command. When Briggs is home, he receives a call from Voltan and he puts him under again by bringing up the word Constantinople and has him rob the jewels of the wealthy Kensington home. That’s a home Briggs made burglar-proof. After the robbery Briggs’s memory draws a blank about what he did, as he investigates the robbery for his firm and believes it’s an inside job.

Women are used by Briggs as sex objects. Elizabeth Berkley plays Jill, a sweet secretary with a low I.Q. Briggs has the hots for, while Charlize Theron is Laura Kensington, an immoral heiress who finds Briggs as someone different from the athletes she dates. Laura’s made to look like a poster version of Veronica Lake, but she acts like the vampire Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) from “The Big Sleep.” When Laura comes to his shabby flat and peels off her trench coat, Briggs’s all wired up for a night of sex when the phone rings and the evil magician puts him under again. In a trance, Briggs robs another house.

Admittedly this is a thin and rather predictable story incorporating the usual Woody nebbish sexist and egotistical characteristics, and to make matters worse it comes with an unbelievable heist plot and with too many mechanical one-liners with silly double-entendre meanings. Woody seems more relaxed in this role than he has been in his more recent films. This one being his 31st. And, since the film has no artistic pretensions–it’s more a homage to the B-films of the forties, it seemed easier to handle than some of his more recent Woody-by-the-numbers flicks or one of those pale imitations of those European auteurs he so much admired like Bergman. Mind you, this is not a good film but one that can be viewed as mild escapist fare. Something that is not all that bad during these troubling times after 9/11, as viewers get a chance to catch their breaths from the horrors of the very violent current real-world.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”