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THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Charlize Theron, David Ogden Stiers, Elizabeth Berkeley
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Digital 2 Channel Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  Trailer, Talent Files, Production Notes
Length:  102 Minutes
Release Date:  January 29, 2002

“Do you have any witnesses?”

“Yeah, ME.”

“You’re gonna take YOUR word over MINE?”

Film ***  

By sheer coincidence, I had just finished viewing The Big Sleep for the umpteenth time when The Curse of the Jade Scorpion arrived at my door.  I could not have been more primed for Woody Allen’s comic take on film noir!

I liked the picture almost immediately, thanks to the lighting and bright color tones brought out by cinematographer Zhao Fei…it instantly looked like the 1940s, recreating the feel and scheme of some of the earliest color photographs.  It’s the perfect setting for the Woodman’s comical script and characters.

Allen plays C. W. Briggs, an investigator for an insurance company (can anyone say Double Indemnity?).  He’s just coming off his biggest coup, discovering a lost Picasso rolled up in a telescope (though the master’s cubist style made it hard for him to identify at first).  He should be at the top of his game, but something’s eating him.

That something is actually a someone, and she’s Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Hunt), a new executive brought in to help “streamline” the company.  Removing Briggs’ sloppy filing cabinet is just the first straw.  These two take an instant and strong dislike to one another, and each hates what the other represents.  “She thinks she’s so smart,” Briggs murmurs, “just because she graduated Harvard and I went to driving school.”

An office party takes the story in a new direction.  Under the guise of a hypnotist (Stiers), both Briggs and Fitzgerald are given post hypnotic suggestions, each triggered by a different word.  His plan is sinister…he wants to use Briggs to rob houses he himself has burglar-proofed…but the side effect of the suggestion is, each falls in love with the other while under his/her spell.

The next day, neither remembers a thing, but soon Briggs is out collecting jewels for his new master, and later, investigating the crime he has no clue HE committed!  As the evidence begins to mount against him, will the only person who believes his innocence be the one woman who can’t stand him?  Even more, CAN she help when she’s got a little hypnosis problem of her own to deal with?

This can’t be considered one of Allen’s masterworks, to be sure, but every once in awhile, he likes to simply kick back and make a comedy for a few laughs and nothing more.  Certainly, Allen does that better than most.  The real joy of his picture isn’t even so much the script or the situations as much as the terrific film noir look to the sets, lighting and costumes, and the cast he assembles around him.  Helen Hunt is terrific, and both she and Charlize Theron look the part beautifully…they’ll remind you of Rosalind Russell and Veronica Lake, respectively. 

Also good is Dan Aykroyd as Briggs’ beleaguered boss…he makes his first appearance in an Allen film here.  Rounding out are a couple of solid reliable standbys, including Stiers and Wallace Shawn, in smaller but important roles.

Allen himself is an amusing mix, bringing the look of a 1940s detective, but keeping all of his classic mannerisms and neurosis intact.  “There’s a word for people who believe everybody’s plotting against them,” his boss chides.  “Yes,” he agrees.  “Perceptive.” 

Bogart he ain’t, but Woody, he’ll always be.

Video ****

As mentioned, the look of the film is most important here, and this beautiful anamorphic transfer from Dreamworks captures it beautifully.  Allen has always worked with top notch cinematographers, and Fei is no different.  One could easily imagine if a detective film from the 1940s were actually filmed in color, this is exactly what he looks like.  Nothing looks new, nor particularly old…color palates are rich but distinct, with a lighting style that keeps everything a bit warm and old fashioned looking.  It’s a marvelous job, recreated perfectly for DVD.

Audio **

As with all Woody Allen films, this one contains a mono soundtrack, which is mostly dialogue oriented but occasionally peppered with a scratchy sounding old record from the period.  It’s not very dynamic, but it is clear, and serves the nature of the film well.

Features **

The disc includes the original theatrical trailer, plus talent files on the principals and some production notes.

Summary:

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is a pleasant and funny diversion from Woody Allen, blending the look and sensibility of a film noir piece with his usual comic wit and feel for characters.  It doesn’t rank amongst his best, but for my money, sub-par Woody outranks a great number of writer/directors at their best.