Late last year when I told a friend I was thinking of embarking upon watching a Woody a week, the friend thought it was a good idea but added, ‘You know you will have to watch The Curse of the Jade Scorpion again.’ This film from 2001 is often singled out as a low point in the middle of three comedies which seem at best insignificant and at worst not that funny. Nonetheless I watched it again hoping for the best.
Set in a fast-talking New York of the 1940s, the story follows ace insurance investigator C.W. Briggs (Woody Allen) who now has to justify his job to a new office efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). The pair loathe one another, however when they are dragged on stage at a magic show and placed under the spell of a hypnotist (David Ogden Stiers), they reveal deeper feelings of attraction. Later, the hypnotist returns Briggs to a hypnotic state and instructs him to use all his experience to rob jewellery from wealthy women – which results in Briggs being an unwitting cat burglar by night and an investigator trying to catch himself by day.
Similar to Small Time Crooks, once this rather ingenious plot device is set up, sadly the plot doesn’t move on. Because the audience is ahead of the characters we are waiting for either the characters to catch up, or for another clever plot twist. Unfortunately, structurally, there is nothing new which makes for a long, drawn out comedy.
Stylistically, though, there is much to recommend in this film, especially if you’re a fan of Thin Man style romantic crime capers from this period. As always, the production design, costumes, cinematography and music are all spot on. It often feels less of a period film than a film from that period, like the sort of film that the characters from The Purple Rose of Cairo would have gone to see. Charlize Theron does a great Veronica Lake, as a high class lady of leisure turned on by Woody’s character (and not even under hypnosis).
Woody Allen himself has spoken about how this film didn’t live up to his expectations, blaming his own performance and the fact that because the budget was so high he could not go back and reshoot as he often does when something is not working. He also believes he squandered the comic abilities of Hunt and supporting actors including Dan Aykroyd and Wallace Shawn.
I tend to think the problem lies in the script. It is peppered with zingers that for the most part just don’t zing. The banter between Briggs and Fitzgerald has the rhythm and tone of the frosty wit in His Girl Friday, but while the dialogue is often crackling the energy of the film is soggy as the plot lumbers along.
While some of the lines do land, and there are great performances and great visuals, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion feels too reverential towards its screwball comedy/film noir progenitors, and a long way away from the wild style of Woody’s early 1970s comedies. Perhaps if it had been released in the 1940s it would have been a smash hit.
Next week: Sounds from a Town I Love