While the internet is abuzz with the usual Woody Allen bitchfests (“I stopped watching the perv’s films…Boy, does Woody look old…Give it up, Woody, you’re yesterday’s news”), the sixty-five-year-old filmmaker continues to practice his craft with consistent artistic aplomb. Last year, Woody scored his biggest box-office success in eons with Small Time Crooks, a less daring film than the succes d’estime he had the year before with Sweet and Lowdown but still a comedy that laced its laughs with rueful intuition. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion falls into the same category. It’s a real charmer from a director who feels that a knockabout romantic farce doesn’t have to be mindless — take that, America’s Sweethearts.
Set in Manhattan (natch) in 1940 (cinematographer Zhao Fei and production designer Santo Loquasto work wonders), Jade Scorpion features Allen as C.W. Briggs, an insurance investigator who’s considered a dinosaur by his firm’s new efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). Since Fitz is schtupping the boss, Mr. Magruder (Dan Aykroyd in Fred MacMurray mode), she has power. It’s tested when the precious jewel of the title is stolen and C.W. claims he can solve the case. Fitz is visibly annoyed by this twerp’s bravado, not to mention his grandstanding as a ladies’ man — a situation that Allen, as writer, director and star, shrewdly plays for giggles in the style of one his idols, Bob Hope (please note that Hope was older than Allen and still cracking wise with blondes in films such as 1972’s Cancel My Reservation).
It’s fun to see C.W. flirting with office hottie Jill (Elizabeth Berkley, of Showgirls infamy, shows off deft comic timing). They both know C.W. is all talk. When femme fatale Laura Kensington, vamped to the Lauren Bacall hilt and beyond by Charlize Theron, offers him some real action, C.W. backs off. No wonder. In this movie, at least, C.W. and Fitz are made for each other.
No way would I have figured the Woodman – too fussy in Mighty Aphrodite — and Hunt — too strident in Pay It Forward — as a flirty fit, even in jest. But they make an oddly appealing pair of romantic sparring partners. In an early nightclub scene, C.W. and Fitz are hypnotized by Voltan (the excellent David Ogden Stiers), who is really a turban-wearing thief from Brooklyn. But Voltan knows his spell stuff. If C.W. hears the word Constantinople and Fitz hears the word Madagascar, these passionate adversaries will turn into lovesick puppies who only see the best in each other. For those, Woody included, who dream that a snap of the fingers and a single word can solve all relationship problems, Jade Scorpion is definitely the date movie of choice. Besides, wish-fulfillment fantasies play better when the jokes come with a sting.