In 1966, when movies were still a toy to him, Woody Allen took a standard-issue Japanese thriller and completely replaced the language with his own clever dialogue. Now, 35 years after "What's Up, Tiger Lily?," Allen has made his own genre picture, a standard-issue 1940s detective story, but he hasn't replaced nearly enough of the words with funny stuff.
The latest film written, directed and starring Allen, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is not only set in 1940, it has dialogue such as "I tried to work up my courage a hundred times, darling" and "I couldn't stand you when I met you and I can't stand you now" that could have been lifted out of any standard gumshoe melodrama of the period.
It would be dishonest to deny that "Jade Scorpion" has amusing moments, but it never gets better than that and often settles for less. Its plotting is too derivative of what it should be spoofing, and a plodding pace creates an energyless quality that makes it play longer than its 103 minutes. Though an unlikely romance is a key story thread, the film is way too chilly for that to be convincing even on genre terms. And those who grumble about Harrison Ford or Michael Douglas getting long in the tooth for romantic roles are not going to be happy at a 65-year-old Allen's involvement with a woman nearly 30 years his junior.
One of Allen's more amusing earlier scripts was "Play It Again, Sam," where he starred as a writer who models himself after Humphrey Bogart, so it's not a stretch to imagine that the chance to actually play a Bogart-type character was one of the things that motivated him this time around. "Jade Scorpion" also offered the writer-director the opportunity to work again in the prewar period he's visited before in films like "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Radio Days" and clearly favors. With production design by Santo Loquasto, costumes by Suzanne McCabe and set decoration by Jessica Lanier, this picture had more fun with its physical re-creation than with its screenplay.
That document features Allen as C.W. Briggs, "a sharp investigator with an impressive record" who works for the major Manhattan insurance firm North Coast Casualty and Fidelity. Briggs is out of the old school, a dyspeptic detective who works on instinct, taking tips from street cons and blind beggars but invariably ending up solving the crime.
C.W.'s greatest current challenge is not in the criminal world but in his own office. That would be driven new efficiency expert Betty Ann "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), hired by Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd), the firm's boss.
There is constant, insistent and frankly finally exhausting animosity between these two, as Fitz's line of anti-C.W. insults, often grounded in the animal world ("wormy little ferret," "suspicious little inchworm," "snoopy little termite," to sample by no means all), loses its charm quite rapidly.
This hostility is so omnipresent that it amuses the pair's North Coast co-workers (including Wallace Shawn and Elizabeth Berkley) to see C.W. and Fitz hypnotized by a nightclub mentalist during an office birthday celebration. The great Voltan (the reliable David Ogden Stiers) places the pair under the dreadful sway of the Jade Scorpion and its "power to darken men's minds" and compels them to act like they are in love with each other.
Things get more complex, but not more interesting, between C.W. and Fitz when a series of baffling burglaries involving a fortune in pilfered gems takes place and no one, not even the great investigator, has a clue as to who the responsible party is.
Those crimes do allow for the entrance of one of the film's more amusing characters, the glamorous and wealthy Laura Kensington, played by Charlize Theron as someone who looks like Veronica Lake, sounds like Lauren Bacall and has the frisky libido classically associated with Gen. Sternwood's younger daughter in "The Big Sleep."
Though hardly epochal, Theron's performance is the only one that seems to understand that "Jade Scorpion" is supposed to make you laugh. By contrast, Hunt, usually the most empathetic of actresses, is defeated by a coldly drawn character, and the film as a whole is hamstrung by a woeful plot device that tells the audience what is going on well before the characters painstakingly figure it out. When Voltan places his subjects into the deepest level of trance, he puts the entire film there as well.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sexual content. Times guidelines: It's all extremely genteel.
'The Curse of the Jade Scorpion'
Woody Allen: C.W. Briggs
Dan Aykroyd: Chris Magruder
Helen Hunt: Betty Ann Fitzgerald
Brian Markinson: Al
Wallace Shawn: George Bond
David Ogden Stiers: Voltan
Charlize Theron: Laura Kensington
In association with VCL Licensing GmbH, a Gravier production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Woody Allen. Producer Letty Aronson. Executive producer Stephen Tenenbaum. Screenplay Woody Allen. Cinematographer Zhao Fei. Editor Alisa Lepselter. Costumes Suzanne McCabe. Production design Santo Loquasto. Art director Tom Warren. Set decorator Jessica Lanier. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
In general release.