The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 2001, 2 stars

No big sting

From The Orlando Weekly, August 24, 2001

Woody Allen’s latest film does involve a curse, but it’s less a curse of a scorpion than one of awkward acting and heavy-handed one-liners.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion features Allen doing his typical schtick, this time as C.W. Briggs, an investigator for a New York City insurance company. Most of that schtick involves verbal sparring matches with newly hired Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), who arrives at the company to look into ways to modernize and improve the efficiency of the operation, much to the disapproval of C.W.

Into this rather predictable setting of 1940s crime investigation enters Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), a hypnotist who casts a spell on C.W. and Betty Ann at a party by uttering magic words that put them into a trance. By later repeating these words to the two unsuspecting accomplices, he forces them to steal jewels for him, a clever plot twist considering C.W. becomes the chief investigator on the case.

Simmering just beneath the surface of most scenes is sexual tension, although it’s difficult to get aroused over about a sultry Charlize Theron bedding down with an aging Allen. The romantic games between C.W. and Betty Ann are more real, but it’s not realism Allen is going for after all – it’s humor. But it just comes across as trite.

The script both spoofs and embraces the smooth-talking, cigarette-smoking world of Double Indemnity, but it has little of that genre’s charm and all its corniness. Allen seems especially uneasy in his role, as if he knows that his intellectual but slightly askew humor isn’t working as well as it normally does. And Helen Hunt, despite giving the film’s best performance, is out of place because she’s too realistic and doesn’t blend with Allen’s stand-up or Dan Aykroyd’s dry caricature of a 1940s businessman.

Increasingly Allen’s best films are the ones in which he is not the star, such as Bullets Over Broadway and Sweet and Lowdown. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad actor, but often his performance upstages his own directing style, which is still one of the most intelligent in Hollywood, despite Scorpion’s failings.

Allen is still often the best at delivering his own lines – “Never bet on a horse that has Parkinson’s” and “Germs can’t live in your bloodstream – it’s too cold.”  It’s these witty retorts and the plot twists that give the film its little energy, but for a movie with such an exotic title and interesting premise, this Scorpion is disappointingly lifeless.

Copyright 2001 © Orlando Weekly