Curse of the Jade Scorpion

reviewed by Steve Sailer

UPI, August 23, 2001

 

Woody Allen's 32nd movie, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is a sweet-natured period piece that has fun with the absurdity of the director casting his own 65-year-old carcass in the role of the romantic leading man. While no more memorable than most Allen movies, the only thing wrong with it is that it's longer on chuckles than laughs.

Although he was once widely hailed as a genius, Allen does not appear to see himself as a Stanley Kubrick-style prophet of the cinema occasionally coming down from the mountaintop with a wholly original new film. Instead, he's a talented, hardworking craftsman churning out a prodigious number of pretty good films.

If Allen was Kubrick, he never would have bothered making an enjoyable and sometimes engaging trifle like "Jade Scorpion." Yet, while Allen has never come close to Kubrick's 1964 to 1971 hat trick of "Dr. Strangelove," "2001," and "Clockwork Orange," Allen would never have wasted a dozen years on "Eyes Wide Shut" either.

Allen's enormous output falls roughly into four categories. First, there were the wild comedies of his early years, such as "Bananas" and "Sleeper."

Then, with 1977's "Annie Hall," the 42-year-old Allen discovered what he wanted to do when he grew up: make "Annie Hall" over and over again. Overrated at first, Allen's comedies about Manhattan sophisticates with implausibly large amounts of time on their hands for strolling in romantic settings while fretting over their adulteries may well be underrated now. They are almost all pleasant to watch, just increasingly hard to distinguish.

Third, there are Allen's imitation Ingmar Bergman gloomathons that nobody in his right mind ever goes to see.

Finally, there are his evocations of the mid-century New York he emerged from, such as "Radio Days" and "Bullets over Broadway." These are generally his most charming and inventive movies.

In that vein, "Jade Scorpion" is a sort of Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy. Set in 1940, Allen is an insurance investigator who bickers constantly with his new boss, an efficiency expert played by Helen Hunt, who won an Academy Award for pretending to be attracted to 60-year-old Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets."

Here, fortunately, Allen gives Hunt a relatively plausible motivation for her gerontocratic fixation: she's been hypnotized. A nefarious stage hypnotist (David Ogden Stiers) has implanted a suggestion that whenever she hears the word "Madagascar," she'll be madly in love with Woody.

While cute, hypnotism is a lot less inventive gimmick than the ones Allen dreamed up for "Zelig" and "Purple Rose of Cairo." It's reminiscent of the premise for a sketch on the "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" improv show. Still, when was the last time you saw a movie about hypnosis?

My wife say she doesn't mind elderly actors romancing younger actresses on screen as long as the leading man gets lots of plastic surgery first. Someone like Robert Wagner shows that he respects his audience by paying good money to stay handsome for them. To her, the insufferably smug stars are the Clint Eastwood-types whose egos are so steel-plated that they play romantic leads while looking like a corpse on chemotherapy.

A facelift, however, doesn't do much good if you started out looking like Woody Allen. So, he long ago mastered self-deprecating humor. Just as Rush Limbaugh is funnier when he's fat, Allen is funnier when he's funny looking.

A lot of the movie's dialogue seems more about the Legend of Woody Allen than the small-time operator he's playing. Hunt calls him "a sleazy megalomaniac who is afraid of women." Insurance investigators generally aren't megalomaniacs, but auteurs are.

When Hunt talks about Allen's "fragile masculinity," Woody warns her, "Hey, one more crack about my religion!"

That about sums up the character "Woody Allen," which the young Allen Konigsberg created for himself to play decades ago. Allen is the devout disciple of his formidable but insecure manhood. He's the egomaniac with low self-esteem, the great man trapped inside the hapless schlemiel.

Indeed, the real Woody Allen has much to be egomaniacal about. He was a fine athlete in his youth (the captain of his high school basketball team); a first-rate amateur musician; a consort to beautiful actresses; a movie star beloved by millions (although probably not hundreds of millions) of fans; a director and writer universally admired by his peers; and an efficient businessman who can make good movies for what "Pearl Harbor' spent on catering.

Yet, every morning he still has to look in the mirror.

 

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