- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

NEW YORK — Woody Allen has his own curse: He's suffering from a cold. "I have a cold because my two, sweet, baby daughters have colds," the comedian says while discussing his new movie, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion." Mr. Allen was referring to his 1-year-old and 2-year-old, whom he adopted with his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, the adoptive daughter of Mia Farrow.

Four fellow cast members of "Jade Scorpion" — Dan Aykroyd, David Odgen Stiers, Helen Hunt and Elizabeth Berkley — join Mr. Allen for promotional interviews, which are being sponsored by DreamWorks Pictures.

"Jade Scorpion," a pastiche of workplace romantic comedy and mystery melodrama with an early 1940s setting, features Mr. Allen as insurance sleuth C.W. Briggs. Resentful of a new executive, an efficiency expert named Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Miss Hunt), the cocksure C.W. bristles at any threat to his authority and eccentric methods.

Sarcasm blooms immediately between C.W. and Betty Ann, who is involved in a clandestine love affair with their mutual boss, Mr. Aykroyd's character, Chris Magruder. Mr. Stiers plays a devious hypnotist, Voltan, who makes both C.W. and Betty Ann slaves to posthypnotic suggestion. Miss Berkley is Jill, a dishy and cheerful girl Friday.

The movie, the 30th feature written and directed by Mr. Allen, turns out to be one of three consecutive projects that might be described as inventory closeouts.

"It came to me out of the blue that it might be funny if I were hypnotized and became both the criminal and the person pursuing the criminal," Mr. Allen says. "I wrote down this idea as a two-line note and threw it in the drawer, where it stayed for a long, long time with a lot of other ideas.

"A couple of years ago, I went through this idea drawer, which had accumulated quite a backlog. Some of the ideas still seemed promising. 'Small-Time Crooks' was one. This was another. A film that I just finished, 'Hollywood Ending,' was still another. So I've done all three now. I wanted to get them up and out."

Mr. Allen, 65, believed that the hypnosis premise would lend itself to a fond return to one of his favorite movie time frames, the 1940s, and a blend of genres typical of the period.

"I grew up on pulp mystery fiction," he says. "Two or three a week might play at neighborhood theaters, along with romantic stories, office-place stories, mistaken-identity stories. At the high end of the romantic comedies in, say, 1940, would be Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in 'His Girl Friday.' I loved those fast-talking, bantering comedies between a man and a woman."

In the 1940s and the movies of that period, he says, "hypnosis was still a mysterious, exotic thing, full of the promise of strange powers over other people."

Mr. Allen says many factors "conspired" to set his movie in the 1940s. "I was born at the end of 1935. Going to the movies was a very romantic thing when I was young. You went into ornate picture palaces, and the stars seemed bigger than life. When I do a period film, I don't do the 1800s or the turn of the century. [Not as a rule, although he did in "Love and Death" and "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," respectively.] I like the 1920s, '30s and '40s. The whole look and sound of those decades. It was a very colorful era, especially in New York."

While recalling his Flatbush childhood as a happy one, Mr. Allen also concedes a regret. "We lived in a nice neighborhood in Brooklyn. At the time, it was lower middle class and very safe. You could play ball on the streets all day long. But within a 20-block radius of where I live now, there's everything: theaters and museums and stores and an opera house. New York City is just a great, exciting place. Brooklyn was not that."

Mr. Allen acknowledges that his emotional attachment to the past may have clouded his sense of the present.

"Reality is so much inferior to what we imagined was possible from the movies of my childhood. This has been an incessant thing in my pictures. 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' is the perfect example. Reality is just unpleasant and difficult and tragic and awful for everybody. I would have to say I'm a happy man, within the limitations which permit one to be happy in this life."

Unlike Mr. Allen, who has maintained an exceptional control and consistency while specializing in movie comedy since the late 1960s, Mr. Aykroyd has accepted that his time as a humorous innovator crested in the late 1970s and the 1980s.

"I've always been a pretty good straight man. I'm happy to supply the anchor here," he says. "Every actor I know would love to work with Woody Allen. I much prefer these jobs where I pop in for a week or two and go on to something else. There's a younger market out there, with new writers and performers. It's their time."

After gravitating to movies from the original comic ensemble of "Saturday Night Live," Mr. Aykroyd dreamed up the farcical hit of the early 1980s, "Ghostbusters." He continues to write screenplays. "I finished one six months ago," he says. "We submitted it to a certain actor, and we're waiting for his view. It's more of a historical piece, but a beautiful story with a lot of natural humor in it."

"Jade Scorpion" is the fifth Woody Allen movie in which Mr. Stiers has played a supporting role. But he says: "I know less about Woody now than I thought I did when I first met him. He's a very private man. He lives a lot of his interior life on film and makes jokes about his charming maladjustments and idiosyncrasies publicly."

Mr. Stiers consulted a couple of hypnotists about his role in "Jade Scorpion." Rebuffed by the Amazing Randi, based in Florida, he turned to California-based Mark Sweet, who was employed as "the warm-up guy" on a TV comedy series that failed to sell. It was called "Love and Money" and co-starred Swoosie Kurtz and Mr. Stiers as "the parents of a really eccentric pair of children."

"Mark gave me two 50-minute conversations," Mr. Stiers says. "Really detailed information about what you look for in a subject. How you can possibly disarm someone who brings a willful invulnerability to the process. And what to do if I should put someone under."

Miss Hunt says being asked to co-star with Mr. Allen had been a lifetime aspiration. "I had kind of given up," she says. "Then it happened. He made a point of reminding me that I was welcome to improvise at any moment. I thought, 'I've waited all this time to work with this man. I'm not going to not say what he wrote. That's crazy.' If it were a modern story, I might have felt differently. But this didn't lend itself to anything that might have flown into my head."

Miss Hunt says the best training for her role in "Jade Scorpion" probably was doing seven seasons on the sitcom "Mad About You," which brought her Emmy Awards during the final four seasons.

"I got to play 15-page scenes when we were doing the series. That is not characteristic of movie work. The movies are more like sound bites. If I hadn't done that, it would have felt odd doing 10 pages uninterrupted before the camera with Woody. He's the only movie person who does that."

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