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"THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION"
(2001) (Woody Allen, Helen Hunt) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A 1940s insurance investigator tries to figure out who's robbing homes where he's previously installed elaborate security systems, all while being unaware that he's the actual thief who's being controlled by a criminal hypnotist.
PLOT:
It's 1940 and CW Briggs (WOODY ALLEN) is one of the best insurance investigators working for North Coast Casualty and Fidelity of New York. A sexist, middle-aged man who enjoys flirting with Jill (ELIZABETH BERKLEY), one of the office secretaries, CW uses his intuition and street connections as much as standard detective measures to crack various insurance claim cases.

Not surprisingly, he doesn't get along with Betty Ann Fitzgerald (HELEN HUNT), the strong-willed and confident efficiency expert who's been shaking up the status quo ever since joining the company. Since she's having an affair with their married office boss, Chris Magruder (DAN AYKROYD), CW must put up with her changes and snide remarks thrown back at him.

Their antagonism is brought to an amusing head at a birthday party for coworker George Bond (WALLACE SHAWN) where Voltan the Magician (DAVID OGDEN STIERS) hypnotizes the two - using a jade scorpion pendant - and makes them believe they're really in love. They then do just that, at least until Voltan breaks the trance, and CW doesn't believe coworker Al (BRIAN MARKINSON) afterwards when he explains what happens.

Nor can the investigator believe that someone is robbing places where he previously installed security systems. Having to deal with both Betty Ann and a rich femme fatale, Laura Kensington (CHARLIZE THERON) while trying to crack those crimes, little does CW know that he's still under Voltan's spell and is repeatedly robbing homes under his command. From that point on, and as he becomes the prime suspect to outside detectives Joe Coopersmith (PETER LINARI) and Herb Coopersmith (MICHAEL MULHEREN), CW does what he can to clear his name all while trying to solve the case.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Although I've seen it done on TV and in the movies, I've never personally witnessed anyone be hypnotized, do things under command, and then be unaware of that after being brought out of the trance. Accordingly, I can't attest whether it's something that can be done or is simply a neat, fictional concept.

Then again, maybe I'm currently under the suggestion of a hypnotist who's making me think just that or write this review. Of course, if the hypnotist were smart, he or she would have me pulling off various criminal deeds for them, such as robbing wealthy residences. That would be the "perfect" crime since I wouldn't recall being the participant, but would also be a bummer should I be an insurance investigator called upon to examine such crimes.

That's the fun and witty premise of writer, director and star Woody Allen's latest film, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion." Like the filmmaker's pictures such as "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Bullets Over Broadway," and "Radio Days," this comedy is a period piece filled with the standard jazz score and terrific production values. It also has Allen doing his normal shtick in front of the camera - namely that of portraying a dweeb-like, stammering character who thinks he's God's gift to woman and has a quick, witty and/or sarcastic comeback to most everything anyone says.

While Allen thankfully pretty much avoids the neurotic and/or insecure material that once worked in his films but recently has become tiresome and somewhat annoying, one's enjoyment of his character and thus the film will depend greatly on one's view of and tolerance for Allen.

Here, he and costar Helen Hunt ("What Women Want," "Pay It Forward") are attempting to recreate the barbed "I detest you, but really like you" and sexually charged dialogue and electricity that fueled similar films of the past starring the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and others. While the exchanges are appropriately acerbic and often well written, they feel somewhat like a pale imitation of the classics that sound and feel more acceptable since, well, since they're classics.

Somewhat surprisingly, the chemistry between Allen and Hunt's characters moderately works, despite the age difference and the fact that Allen is not the first actor that one would naturally think of as that sort of leading man (along the lines of a Cary Grant or Clark Gable).

The rest of the film obviously deals with the whole hypnotist-based crime spree, and its execution feels just as quaint as the constant man-woman bickering. The setup of Allen's character investigating the crimes he's unknowingly committing is inspired and certainly filled with potential, even if I'm not sure how original it is.

It's not difficult to predict that he'll eventually be fingered as the prime suspect and then have to prove his innocence. Nor will it surprise many that a romance between his and Hunt's characters will be hinted at repeatedly, particularly since both were hypnotized early on to believe they were deeply in love with each other. Yet, while all of that is cute and amusing, none of it really generates the big laughs or brilliantly fun or imaginative plot complications as one might expect would occur from such a setup.

In addition, it may have been more fun had we not immediately known that the hypnotist was forcing Allen's character to commit the crimes. Instead, if we - and the supporting characters - slowly began to receive hints of what was really occurring until we'd eventually see the catalytic spell casting, the entire buildup and payoff might have been more enjoyable.

Thankfully, and despite the missed potential and rather tame/old-fashioned approach at storytelling, the film is relatively entertaining to watch. Part of that's due to the standard great assortment of performers who've signed on for the film. Beyond Allen and Hunt pretty much doing their typical performance routine as filtered through the period material and setting, Dan Aykroyd ("Pearl Harbor," "The House of Mirth") appears as a period boss who's having an affair with Hunt's character.

Charlize Theron ("Sweet November," "The Legend of Bagger Vance") plays the obligatory femme fatale character modeled along the lines of Veronica Lake, and David Ogden Stiers ("Doc Hollywood," TV's M*A*S*H") embodies the devious hypnotist. Yet, neither performer gets enough screen time to make their character as interesting or as much fun as they might have been.

That's definitely true for Wallace Shawn ("Clueless," "Shadows and Fog") who's was so memorable in "The Princess Bride," while Elizabeth Berkley ("Any Given Sunday," "Showgirls") and Brian Markinson ("Small Time Crooks," "Primary Colors") are decent but not particularly remarkable in their supporting roles.

Overall, the film is a pleasant enough diversion that offers a fun twist on the old noir gumshoe film, but doesn't take that far enough to come off as grand entertainment. Unlikely to put all viewers completely under its spell but certain to entrance some, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed August 14, 2001 / Posted August 24, 2001


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