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Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2002
Ah, to be young and Woody
By KAORI SHOJI
Orson Welles said that as a director grows old, his movies age too. But in the case of Woody Allen, it's as though his works grow younger as he grows older. Now 67 years old and with nearly 40 films to his name, Allen has departed from obsessive Freudian analyzing, poetic one-liners about death and depression and deep moralizing behind the facade of wisecracks. Now he's sticking to stuff that matches what he once gave as a description of himself: "thin and fun."
Accordingly, in Allen's latest, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," the laughs are contrived, the dialogue a little artificial, the story a bit too pat. You can imagine the old Orson Welles taking a look at it and saying, "Not bad. The director's a bit green but no matter; he's still got time to learn!"
"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is Allen's ode to the 1940s, not as an era in itself but an era as depicted in his favorite movies by Ernst Lubitsch ("Trouble in Paradise"), Howard Hawkes ("To Have and Have Not," "His Girl Friday") and Billy Wilder ("Double Indemnity"). It's made up of snippets from all these works: production design, dialogue construction, costumes. An ardent, starry-eyed tribute to an era of filmmaking, this is more suited to a journeyman than an auteur of nearly 70. You can't shake off the feeling that Allen could have made it blindfolded and with one arm in a cast.
He does succeed in creating a period cocoon furnished with all the things he holds dear: the chunky yet sleek cars, the voluptuous blondes wearing reeeaally red lipstick, men in homburg hats, smoky bars playing scratchy jazz tunes. He climbs into this cocoon and sighs with contentment, then he beckons the audience to come over and bask in the atmosphere. Maybe he is tired (and quite understandably so).
And too tired, perhaps, to play the protagonist C.W. Briggs: an insurance investigator with an eye for pretty secretaries in his office, namely Jill (Elizabeth Berkley) with whom he has a wild flirtation going but playfully backs off when he's told to "bring a ring." Life for C.W. is pretty good except for the newly hired efficiency expert, Betty Anne Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), who declares C.W.'s methods to be antiquated and wasteful. Their daily diatribes against each other go to the tune of: "I think I really hate you, Fitzgerald" and "If you come any closer you're in danger of castration." (This is an office relationship straight out of "His Girl Friday" which hopped on Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant's machinegun arguments.)
As it is, C.W. and Betty Ann's conversations are most refreshing -- nowadays, coworkers can't fling personal remarks like that without fearing a lawsuit. And, of course, their perpetual locking of horns is just a prelude to the blossoming of love, though at this point Betty Ann is having a secret affair with the company president Magruder (Dan Aykroyd) and C.W. is in the process of being seduced by knock-out blonde nymphomaniac Laura Kensington (Charlize Theron).
What ultimately brings C.W. and Betty Ann together is hypnosis at a nightclub. Crooked magician Voltan Polgar (David Ogden Stiers) dangles a jade scorpion in front of their eyes and presto: They're passionately in love. Later, Polgar coerces them into heisting jewels, with neither of them having any recollection afterward.
Apparently, Allen had tried to get Tom Hanks to play C.W., but failing to do so was forced to step in and take the part himself. Though he shows his usual dexterity, you probably won't be able to relate to the scene in which he stands over Theron, who is in bed with one bare leg exposed from under the sheet. Their vast age difference is painfully obvious, and you just don't want to imagine what would happen if he decided to join her (fortunately, he doesn't).
Once you get past this jarring note, the rest is just a cozy reenactment of a prewar Hollywood picture, complete with the perky ending (bad guys duly punished, and the rest of the cast portioned out the happiness they deserve) that enables everyone to all go home with a chuckle. If they didn't make movies like this anymore, then "Jade Scorpion" would be a standout. But the fact is, they do and that kind of puts a damper on the whole proceedings.