The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
by Jon Bastian
Woody Allen brings us screwball noir.
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You’ll find yourself sitting through a lot of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion silently hoping for Woody Allen’s character to accidentally utter “Madagascar.” When that moment finally does come, it’s in exactly the right place and yet unexpected. That’s a lot of the charm of Woody Allen’s latest. However, when that “Madagascar” finally does come, it also ushers in a finale that is perhaps a little bit too neat, in which all truth is revealed. It’s a minor quibble, though, and while The Curse of the Jade Scorpion isn’t among Allen’s best films, it’s far from his worst. Think of it as a sort of cross between Manhattan Murder Mystery and Broadway Danny Rose with a good dose of the Valentine-to-the-past feeling of Radio Days.
The set-up is achieved in remarkably short order. The year is 1940. Allen plays CW Briggs, insurance company investigator extraordinaire, a man who solves crime and fraud by getting into the heads of the perpetrators, saving his company millions. You’d think that the company would be grateful, but there’s a new efficiency expert in town, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), and she and Briggs lock horns from the very first moment. She wants to streamline and make things more cost-effective, but that’s not how Briggs functions and he’s practically apoplectic when she moves his files to one central location. What Briggs doesn’t know (but we do) is that Fitzgerald is having an affair with a company bigwig. Then everybody goes out to a nightclub birthday party for a co-worker where suave stage hypnotist Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) puts Briggs and Fitzgerald under, convincing them that they’re madly in love and married. For a brief moment, the two act the part to almost everyone’s amusement, and then they are awakened, having forgotten everything.
Well, almost everything. You see, those magic hypnotic code words, Istanbul for Briggs and Madagascar for Fitzgerald, are still very much active, and Voltan decides to use the hapless Briggs as a remote control jewel thief. After all, the man who installed the security systems on many of his company’s client’s homes is the man best equipped to thwart them. It puts Briggs in the position of the perfect patsy, since he’s the investigator assigned to track down himself, all the while having no idea that he is the perpetrator. The closer he gets to solving the crime, the more of a circumstantial net he draws around his own neck, none the wiser.
On one level, this is a classic innocent fool as victim storyline. Ironically, though, Briggs really isn’t a fool. He’s good at what he does, and in his early scenes bickering with Fitzgerald over the company’s new methods, it isn’t hard at all to take his side. After all, he’s right.
As the midnight crimes continue and all the fingers start to point to Briggs, we’re treated to a combination of film noir and screwball comedy types. Hunt’s Fitzgerald is right out of classic Howard Hawks, a tough-talking gal functioning as an equal in a man’s world. We also meet strange young heiress Laura Kensington (Charlize Theron), who bears an uncanny resemblance here to Veronica Lake and whose machine-gun, slang-laden dialogue elicits the best of the noir vamps of the forties. It’s Theron’s character who also gives a second level of meaning to the title. The eponymous jade scorpion is a hypnotist’s charm, but the charming Laura Kensington is herself a jaded scorpion — so jaded, in fact, that she comes on to nebbishy Briggs just because she’s never done anything like it before. (All right, she also comes onto Briggs because she’s the latest hot young thing in a Woody Allen film. Director’s prerogative, after all.)
Perhaps the real weakness of Curse of the Jade Scorpion isn’t that Woody Allen’s storytelling powers have at all decreased. Rather, it’s that he’s been telling his stories for so long and so prolifically that we know the standard operating procedure. After all, in the last thirty-five years, he’s written and directed thirty-one films — thirty-four if you count his two television outings and his segment of New York Stories. It’s quite a filmography, but the characters become familiar. Nebbishy Allen, his embattled true-love and the sweet young thing that can never really be; that’s his eternal triangle, from Annie Hall right through to today. If anything has changed, it’s been his tone. Deconstructing Harry and the disastrous Celebrity seemed to be his last shots at bitterness and cynicism. Lately, he’s turned toward sweetness, first with Small Time Crooks and now with The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly Radio Days, one of his best films, is dripping with sweet nostalgia for the past. It’s just that sometimes, and especially with a screwball farce noir, sweetness isn’t necessarily the right tone. I can’t help but think that this could have been a much better film if Allen had ratcheted everything up a few notches and carried the dark potential of the lunacy a bit further. Still, it’s Woody Allen, and although I had my deep reservations with Celebrity and Sweet and Lowdown, he’s lately been back in form. Even when he’s not working to his full potential, though, he still gives us a delightful hoot, well worth seeing.
Jon Bastian is a playwright, screenwriter and TV hack who has a certain nostalgia for Woody Allen’s early, funnier ones, and puts Stardust Memories at the top of his list of Woody Allen movies.
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