The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

In his latest film, Woody Allen moves in slow motion. Actually, the whole of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion appears to be creaking and shuffling, like it’s been made by zombies. As always in an Allen movie, there’s a pile-on of respected and prize-winning performers, working for teensy pay and sometimes appearing in teensy parts, just thrilled — so they keep telling us — to be part of a Woody Allen project. The very name “Woody Allen” is like a merit badge: you’ve done serious work with a serious filmmaker, you’ve proved yourself worthy. Of what, I don’t know.

Curse offers the usual movie star line-up, though it’s a little shorter than some previous Allen films. It also offers the usual plot: Allen is enthralled by a young and beautiful woman, and soon wins her heart because he’s just so clever and sweet and irresistible. In this case, he plays CW Briggs, a veteran insurance agent, working in Manhattan, 1940. CW’s routine — flirting with the good-natured sexpot secretary, Jill (Elizabeth Berkley), solving his fraud cases, drinking and hanging out with the guys — is thrown out of joint when his employer, Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd) hires an efficiency expert to streamline the office. When Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt, looking even more uncomfortable than she usually does) threatens to streamline CW’s job right out of existence, observing as well that he has a “fragile masculinity,” the battle is on.

While Curse obviously gestures toward beloved 1940s comedies like His Girl Friday, it doesn’t crackle enough to complete the comparison. CW and Betty Ann’s acerbic exchanges are the film’s high point, at least at first, even if Allen’s habitual tics and coughs do slow things down, not so much literally, but more metaphysically: this routine is worn thin. Then the insults start to repeat (CW is a slimy little weasel, an insect, a roach, etc.), and the energy winds down, such that you’re just kind of waiting for the film to get on with whatever it is it’s doing. After a couple of scenes, Betty Ann and CW look like they’re waiting for something or someone to light a fire beneath them. In another movie, maybe, that fire would come when they agree to take part in a hypnotist’s show at a night club where the company employees have gathered for their comrade George’s (Wallace Shawn) birthday. On stage, this hypnotist, Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), hypnotizes them to believe they are not only deeply in love, but also married. Off stage, Voltan is a con artist, and it turns out that his act is just a way to get CW and Betty Ann under his dastardly spell, so he can phone them late at night, give them a vocal cue, and send them off to steal jewels for him. Because CW knows the security set-ups in a series of wealthy folks’ homes, he’s able to steal lots of jewels, but then he doesn’t remember what happened. He ends up investigating his own robberies, and soon enough, he stands accused by his associates.

There’s not much else that goes on here that you can’t anticipate from the above outline, though some of these events are more entertaining than others. One of the most pleasant occasions is when CW meets a lusciously vampy daughter of a wealthy client, Laura Kensington (Charlize Theron), who snarks a bit and then takes a liking to him precisely because he looks so seedy and underclass: the girl wants to go slumming. When she comes to his apartment for a midnight tryst, she’s eager to drink booze and throw off her inhibitions (of which she actually seems to have very few), commenting lasciviously on the dreary decor. When she’s laid out on his bed, ready for love, he gets a phone call, and is instantly zapped into his hypno-trance. When he tells her to leave, this confidant girl is incredulous, and Theron delivers her line right on beat: “Have you got a screw loose!?” Laura is certainly more lively than Theron’s recent starring roles (say, Sweet November), but she’s not on screen long enough to give you a sense of anything about her, other than that she wears glorious white dressing gowns, smokes cigarettes non-stop, and dyes her hair often. But I guess that’s all CW needs to know.

It also appears that CW is into the put-down mode of romance, because he finds himself falling for Betty Ann, even when they’re not hypnotized, the more she calls him names (rodent and gnat and what-have-you). At the same time, he’s beginning to think she’s the thief, and goes searching her apartment one night: “I wasn’t spying,” he blusters when he’s busted, “I was rummaging!” Before that, however, he hides and overhears Betty Ann with Chris, with whom she is having an affair (he’s married, she’s a smart woman who’s made one of those foolish choices). Now knowing that Betty Ann has a soft side, and more importantly, that she is vulnerable (and so, it seems, nonthreatening), CW decides to protect her, in between barbs. And so on.

Somewhere inside this movie, there may be another one. The press kit goes into lengthy descriptions of the ways that the three female characters — Jill, Betty Ann, and Laura — play off one another, in more emotional and socio-political detail than they actually display on screen (particularly in the case of Jill, who has, maybe, two and a half scenes). This may mean that at some point, something else was going on on the set, or maybe it just means that whoever wrote the press notes made good use of the actors’ reports on their thinking and watching Double Indemnity as background for their characters.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, like many Allen movies, does not immediately stand out as a particularly progressive text in terms of women’s roles. Female characters have never been his strong suit. (I should note here that my own Allen tastes are peculiar: I can’t sit through Annie Hall, and yet, while I think The Sweet Lowdown is odious in some ways, I can’t take my eyes of Sean Penn’s curiously compelling performance, every time it comes on HBO.) The Curse of the Jade Scorpion makes you want Betty Ann to be a strong Rosalind Russellish dame, but then you realize, she’s too zombified for that.

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