- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

Woody Allen's mystique has made us familiar with his secrecy about scripts. Cast members see only the pages that apply to them.

The staleness of the new Allen farce, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," might have been avoided if at least one vigilant party had been involved early enough to point out pitfalls.

The movie's most conspicuous weakness is a comic mystery plot whose mechanisms are so tedious that even slow-witted moviegoers may be hours, days or weeks ahead of the twists and payoffs that Mr. Allen regards as adequately nifty.

Mr. Allen hopes to evoke savory cliches of mystery melodramas and romantic comedies of the early 1940s. Offhand, the idea would seem to be catnip for him. So would the smarty-pants role he contrives for himself: C.W. Briggs, chief investigator for a New York City insurance company.

Briggs is so smug about his methods and track record that he sets himself up for criminal exploitation. The trickster is Voltan, a devious nightclub hypnotist played by David Ogden Stiers.

To double his potential for ill-gotten gains, Voltan seizes an opportunity to subject both Briggs and a new office rival, Helen Hunt as starchy and sarcastic efficiency expert Betty Ann Fitzgerald, to lucrative mind control. The two become hypnotized stooges while attending an office party at Voltan's club.

Insinuating code words, Constantinople and Madagascar, become the swami's key to unlocking the wealthiest mansions insured by the firm that employs C.W. and Betty Ann, who are transformed into unwitting, sleepwalking accomplices when the villain is ready to pounce.

The initial wisecracking hostility between the hero, who has things the way he likes them around the office, and the aggressive heroine, who regards C.W.'s investigative division as an outmoded and expendable fiefdom, is clearly a preamble to romantic attraction. In this case, Betty Ann's romantic involvement with their mutual boss, Dan Aykroyd as Chris Magruder — adulterous but sincerely smitten — would tend to prejudice matters against C.W.

The emerging romantic triangle, once C.W. and Betty Ann find themselves thrown into hot water and dependent on some mutual trust, has amusing possibilities.

But for the Voltan capers, Mr. Allen cannot invent fresh variations. It's the same lackluster modus operandi from theft to theft. The hypnotically entranced C.W. is left holding the bag, unable to come up with plausible alibis for his whereabouts or plausible explanations for the malfunction of home security systems designed to his specifications. The police on the case are well within their rights to be suspicious — and welcome the opportunity to get even with C.W., who never has concealed his sense of superiority.

At this juncture, the film would have been helped by C.W.'s team — Wallace Shawn, Brian Markinson and Elizabeth Berkley — getting into the act in a significant way. Clearly, someone needs to ride to the rescue of the group's thoroughly outsmarted and confounded boss. Mr. Shawn's character points out, rather late in the day, that Voltan's nightclub act doesn't seem exactly harmless.

Anyway, the spectacle of Mr. Allen sleepwalking from one caper to the next, ultimately joined by an identically sleepwalking Miss Hunt, is not sufficient to keep a humorous mystery percolating. On the contrary, it suggests that Mr. Allen forgot to check the pilot light. All he's stirring is a pot that never exceeds room temperature.

The Allen negligence also takes a minor toll on Charlize Theron, introduced with a provocative flourish as a society tramp who is perversely keen on vamping C.W. A "Constantinople" trance interferes with that prospect. Then Mr. Allen cannot think of any way to resume the flirtation.

1/2 Star

TITLE: "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion"

RATING: PG-13 ("Some sexual content," according to the MPAA; occasional comic vulgarity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Woody Allen.

Cinematography by Zhao Fei.

Production design by Santo Loquasto

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes


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