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The Curse of the Jade Scorpion Directed and written by Woody Allen Starring Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, Elizabeth Berkley and Charlize Theron Classification: PG Rating: **

Set in 1940, the same year as Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday was released, Woody Allen's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion begins much in the Hawks mode, with Allen and co-star Helen Hunt playing the Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell roles. The scene is the busy office of Northcoast Insurance. We're drawn into a smart-alecky crossfire of conversation and the drawing of lines between hard-nosed insurance investigator C. W. Briggs (Allen) and the feisty new efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). C. W., who uses street sources, bookies and beggars to provide him with his inside dope, has no time for her newfangled ways.

This is Allen's second movie in a row about criminal lowlifes, bickering couples and con men. It's an oddity of Woody Allen's career that his last film, Small Time Crooks, was one of his most successful in recent years. Buoyed by his new relationship with DreamWorks, it had the necessary marketing push. But there's a quality of playing it safe here that makes even Celebrity seem interesting by comparison.

Once again, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion has a middling quality. It feels like an exercise in seasoned craft with an occasional good line, which can't help seeming hugely lacking in ambition. There's a prevailing sense that the wind has gone out of Allen's artistic sails.

Of course, the artist isn't the work, and biography isn't criticism, yet it's difficult, in fact, almost impossible, not to see the persona of Woody Allen imbedded in his recent films. (Culture critic Christopher Lasch found Allen's most influential movies in the seventies to be case studies in pathological narcissism). Since being publicly accused of pedophilia, certainly guilty of marrying his stepdaughter, Allen has undergone a public shaming that's arguably as extreme, if less punitive, than the one bestowed on his idol, Charlie Chaplin. The sense in The Curse of The Jade Scorpion is that Allen is determined to be innocuously pleasing rather than interesting, yet unable to let go of his old obsessions and grievances.

There are still traces of acrimony, not with the bile of Deconstructing Harry, but with a definite edge. Here we find C. W., a character who seems almost an awkwardly self-conscious return to the nebbish of Allen's sixties comedies, ogling the office doll (Elizabeth Berkley) and being bombarded with accusations of being sleazy, misogynistic and over the hill. His verbal jousting with Betty Ann isn't just cute: He compares Betty Ann to those dictators who have recently taken the spotlight on the world stage -- Hitler and Mussolini. Betty Ann, who has the eye of her married boss (Dan Aykroyd), views C. W. as a sleazy little vermin who should be erased. Still, his character blithely dithers on, as if the adorable charm behind the randy come-ons and vitriolic remarks were self-evident.

What candy-coats the barely veiled hostility is a device of flagrant artificiality. One night, C. W., Betty Ann and the rest of the office go out to hold a party for their co-worker, George (Wallace Shawn). George is a magic buff and, for the occasion, a hypnotist (David Ogden Stiers) has been hired to entertain. The hypnotist, through a spell, makes the two enemies believe they are in love, much to their co-workers' amusement. Later, he uses his code words, "Casablanca" and "Madagascar," to entrance them into doing other criminal acts they don't remember.

Soon we have C. W./Woody hot on the trail of a criminal who appears to be him, matching wits with himself. Hypnotism may be the plot-master's laziest device, but there are moments of whimsical ingenuity here of the sort that Allen has demonstrated in movies from The Purple Rose of Cairo to Zelig and in numerous short stories. But on the downside, Allen's and Hunt's impressions of hypnotic zombies are so flat as to risk putting audiences to sleep.

Even on a level of craftsmanship, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion can't quite be bothered. There's no third act, or second act really, just a few more riffs on the period and the kind of pulp-serial matinees that filled in between real movies in the forties. In a sop to the private-eye fiction, Charlize Theron (wearing a Veronica Lake peekaboo hairdo) is cast as the bad little rich girl, Laura Kensington, who takes an unpredictable shine to the scruffy little investigator. Allen's insistence on casting himself as a leading man remains strange -- either deluded or defiant. Yes, Bogie had a few decades on Bacall, but there's invariably a point, apparently obvious to everyone except Allen, where a viewer contemplates the coupling of the twentysomething star and the sixtysomething director with a resounding, "Ick!"

Though it may not work as whimsy or homage, there's a spirit of affection in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. It just doesn't seem to be particularly directed toward human beings. With a set designed by Santo Loquasto, shot by Zhao Fei, a world of dowdy, burnished elegance comes to life. Given Allen's spare directing style -- mostly master shots that make the backgrounds as important as the characters -- the viewer leaves The Curse of the Jade Scorpion with warm feelings toward interior decoration and the music of the past, but little memory of the characters who inhabited it. ... Schneller on Woody. R3