THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is the latest film from Woody Allen, whose work I have always found fascinating. His career seems to flow unevenly between periods of somber, self-gratifying misfires and inventively funny masterpieces. In the last few years, Allen has seemed to be in a particularly sprightly mood. Last summer's Small Time Crooks was not only an unusually cheery Allen effort, but also his biggest box office hit ever. Jade Scorpion is in the same vein, except that this one is even better.

It takes place in early 1940. Allen plays C.W. Briggs, a top investigator at a large insurance company. He is known for being as intellectually perceptive as he is socially backward. His time is spent alternately praising his own ability to "think like" criminals and charming young female office workers. Briggs clashes severely with Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), an efficiency expert called in to make the agency run more smoothly. She wants to streamline everything, and he worries that this will wreck his ability to do his job. What no one knows is that Betty Ann is having an affair with the boss, Chris Magruder (played by Dan Aykroyd).

Briggs invites Betty Ann for a drink to discuss their differences. The meeting is a complete disaster. They abhor one another. Then, at a birthday party for another worker, they are called as volunteers for a hypnotist (David Ogden Stiers) who is performing a show. He puts them in a trance by dangling a jade scorpion in front of them and issuing key words: his is "Constantinople," hers is "Madagascar." Once hypnotized, he makes them believe they are madly in love. Neither can remember what happened when brought out of the spell.

Woody Allen and Helen Hunt are hypnotized by David Ogden Stiers in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
A short time later, the hypnotist calls Briggs and, saying the word "Constantinople," puts him back in a trace. He then orders Briggs to steal valuable jewels from a mansion for which Briggs himself installed the security system. When the insurance company learns of the theft, they make Briggs the lead investigator on the case. (This concept is pure Woody Allen genius.) The investigation leads him to Laura Kensington (Charlize Theron), a sexy femme fatale who is strangely attracted to the little man. As the case drags on, the hypnotist also calls Betty Ann to get her participation. An added hitch is that whenever Briggs or Betty Ann are in a trance, they still believe they are in love and act accordingly - much to each other's digust.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion has one of the best movie premises of the year. Although my description of the plot would appear to give away everything but the kitchen sink, I have actually left out most of the details. The idea is rich enough to support all kinds of little detours, as characters bump into each other in various states of consciousness that inherently complicate their lives. Plus, it's just plain funny to see Allen and Hunt pick up the phone, hear the word "Constantinople" or "Madagascar," and fall into a trance. The way the script bounces them back and forth between reality and sleepiness, between love and hate, is really clever.

I liked the characters in this film better than in some of Allen's other movies. At times, his characters all talk in the same voice: Woody Allen's. (A similar fate marred this summer's America's Sweethearts, where everyone talked in the shtick-y style of writer Billy Crystal.) Here, each character is unique. Briggs does have that typical Allen sense of wisecrackery, but Betty Ann is defensive and whip-smart, Laura is vampy, and Magruder is smarmy. The actors play their scenes well, too. Theron is perfection spoofing those tough 40's movie broads who make even the most mundane remark sound like an invitation to have earth-shaking sex. Allen and Hunt are a startlingly good match, playing off one another's timing with crack precision. My favorite performance, though, goes to David Ogden Stiers. He has a small but crucial role, which he plays with mastery. (You may likely find yourself tempted, as I am, to call other friends who have seen the film and say "Constantinople" using the actor's deadpan delivery when they answer.)

Woody Allen's sense of creativity is amazing, particularly when he uses it as well as he does here. An investigator looking for himself, unaware that he has even committed a crime? Brilliant. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is a pure joy to watch. It's one of Allen's best films.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is rated PG-13 for some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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