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Curse of the Jade Scorpion

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Starring: Woody Allen, Helen Hunt
Director: Woody Allen
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: August 2001
Genres: Comedy, Suspense

*Also starring: Elizabeth Berkley, Dan Aykroyd, Charlize Theron, Brian Markinson, David Ogden Stiers

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

There is no way to explain my constant fascination with Woody Allen. He is one of the few comedy geniuses of the 20th century. From masterful comedy-dramas like "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" to somber, Bergmanesque dramas like "Interiors" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" to self-portraits that are as acrid and alive as any of his early works like "Husbands and Wives" and "Deconstructing Harry," Woody has maintained a body of work that reflects his philosophy and psychology of general relationships on Manhattan's Lower East Side. And he can be hard on himself when he deconstructs his own life, but always with an edge and a distance that may not always appeal to everyone who is not from New York. I would never confuse Woody for a mainstream comedy director in this jaded day and age. That is why it is a pleasure to report that "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is a delightful souffle, spiked and stinging with wit from all corners of the screen. It is as smarmily funny as "Small Time Crooks" and "Manhattan Murder Mys tery" and as affectionate and buyoant as "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Zelig." "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is set in Manhattan in 1940 where C.W. Briggs (Woody Allen) is a fraud insurance detective who cracks nearly every case with sheer luck and ingenious instinct. He is admired by his co-workers, which includes Dan Aykroyd as his professional boss Magruder and Jill (Elizabeth Berkley), a secretary who will let someone rub her chest as long as they bring a ring. The one exception to this staff is Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt) who is hired by the company to make it more efficient and workmanlike (she also considers condensing the private detective agency). She hates C.W. and sees him as vermin and as a dinosaur (there are probably as many synonyms used to describe Woody negatively in this film than in any other). C.W. hates her too and you can see it will probably lead to a romance at some point. One night at a birthday party, C.W. and Betty Ann are asked to participate in a magic act by the great Voltan (David Ogden Stiers). They are put in a trance where the names like "Madagasc ar" and "Constantinople" are uttered and where they are apparently lovers. Once snapped out of the trance, C.W. continues to hate Betty Ann. However, precious jewels begin to disappear from wealthy estates and C.W. might be a prime suspect thanks to the trance-like powers of the great Voltan.

"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" reminds me of the great 40's romantic comedies where a bickering couple would trade insults and engaging repartee with ease ("His Girl Friday" is my favorite of that period). Woody Allen and Helen Hunt are a match made in heaven and show love and hate for each other with aplomb. Their chemistry works well - Hunt is all professionalism and Allen simply cracks wise. What is ultimately satisfying and unusual is to see Allen in a role that would have been suited for someone like Cary Grant or James Stewart. Seeing Allen as a short man with a milder neurosis than usual is simply startling and hilarious - consider the opening sequence where he arrives at his office in a trenchcoat and felt hat as if he were Humphrey Bogart. Similarly, Hunt cleverly assumes the role of a 40's working woman with authority and great energy - I am not crazy about Hunt overall but in the right role, this actress sizzles and holds her own with Allen.

"Jade Scorpion" has the customary Allen quips but it also has an informal, chaste, elegant atmosphere. A romantic comedy like this in the 1940's would have been rapid fire in pace and language. Here, Allen chooses to slow it down somewhat, as if inviting us for a cup of tea rather than coffee. To some, this may be offputting but I was positively entranced. The irradiating glow from the cinematography by Zhao Fei enhances the elegance and brings a nostalgic tone to the proceedings.

As always, Allen knows how to choose the right actors. Can you recall Sean Penn being as faultless and knowing as in "Sweet and Lowdown"? Can you recall Winona Ryder ever being as bewitching as in "Celebrity"? Well, "Jade Scorpion" has Helen Hunt at her best as aforementioned. There is also Dan Aykroyd as a businesslike romantic interest (I never thought Aykroyd would share a kissing scene with Helen Hunt) with choice lines - he delivers a performance every bit as nuanced as anything he has ever done. Elizabeth Berkley is actually tolerable on screen, shedding any leftover negative vibes from "Showgirls." David Ogden Stiers, an Allen regular, vibrates with stinging ardor. Everyone is perfectly cast and seems to occupy a time in history credibly, unlike say "Pearl Harbor."

"Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is a hoot and a half and tightly written and directed. They say Woody Allen is not worth caring about anymore, and that he is way past the comic highlights of his career. Some may say he is simply marking time, making one film a year to keep himself busy. He may not create a masterpiece like "Crimes and Misdemeanors" or "Annie Hall" but who cares. He still makes films and let us be glad his wit lives on. The real curse would be to avoid him.

Copyright 2001 Jerry Saravia

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