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[whitespace] 'Curse of the Jade Scorpion'
Poverty Rowers: Woody Allen and Helen Hunt start in 'The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,' a movie so antique it looks like an artifact of the early 1930s.

The Cheap Detective

Minor isn't the word for 'Curse of the Jade Scorpion'

By Richard von Busack

IT'S NOT that Woody Allen's too old to carry off the part of a superconfident but ratty insurance investigator, I think it's the film itself that's too old. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion has an antique late-late show Poverty Row plot; it's set in 1940, but it actually recalls the movies of 1931. Allen plays CW, an insurance investigator who has been locking horns with the newly hired efficiency expert, Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). Even though they hate each other, a nightclub hypnotist makes them reveal their deep feelings of love. What they don't realize is that the hypnotist has kept them under post-hypnotic suggestion, making them steal jewels while they're in a trance.

Hunt, as restless as a tethered falcon, her brazen sexual confidence here enhanced by tight skirts and sweaters, is meant to play conflicted women. Sadly, she's stranded in an era when women's roles in the movies have never been more bland. She's a little too strange to play a knockoff of a '30s girl-reporter part. (I'm not putting her down--I like strange.) Hunt has to stop what she's doing to deliver the baroque insults Allen's scripted for her; she has to babble to recite them, they're so long and involved. And Hunt doesn't seem in sync with Allen. The direction reminded me of the old records they used to have where a movie star would read dialogue and pause, allowing the listener, who got a script included with the album, to "act" with the star.

The supporting cast doesn't provide much relief. As a wealthy party girl, Charlize Theron is made up like Veronica Lake--she only adds to the film's mustiness; it's like the Playboy photo essay where they used to dress up a contemporary star as some screen siren of the old days. It's not a performance, it's a pictorial. David Ogden Stiers, however, is enjoyable as "Voltan the Inscrutable," the criminal hypnotist. If you've watched as many old movies as Allen has, Stiers might remind you of the actor J. Carrol Naish, who used to play these turbaned, mascara-daubed villains.

While the film is as depressing as late-period Bob Hope, at least it's well photographed; Zhao Fei makes the brown colors of the studio interiors cozy and autumnal, and Santo Loquasto's always top-notch interior decorating is perhaps even better than usual. Still, to put it bluntly, Allen's at a time of life when every movie could be his last. If you can remember when the release of every Allen movie was an event, it's hard to accept that he's wasting his time with something that scarcely would have qualified as a B-film even in its day. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion has been called a trifle, but it's too trifling to qualify even for that designation.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (PG-13; 104 min.), directed and written by Woody Allen, photographed by Zhao Fei and starring Allen, Helen Hunt and David Ogden Stiers, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the August 30-September 5, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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