Minutes into the new Woody Allen movie, “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” filmgoers may find themselves overcome by an uncomfortable sensation.
Call it the curse of the jaded audience.
Here is Woody Allen playing a 1940s insurance investigator, C.W. Briggs, a “weaselly,” “scummy” “worm,” “vermin” and “megalomaniac” (according to his nemesis, Helen Hunt’s Betty Ann Fitzgerald), a man with a fragile sense of masculinity who has problems with women.
Well, gee. There’s news.
There was a time when Woody Allen’s movies could be enjoyed for what they are--the hyper-analytic, hyper-intelligent, insightful, often hilarious musings of a nebbishy Yiddishe New York writer. Some of the characters Allen played were creeps, but the audience viewed them with the security of detachment. The creep was a role he was playing.
That perception changed forever when a series of domestic revelations and readjustments put Woody Allen the husband, father and stepfather in the headlines and in court battling charges of child abuse.
To watch Allen’s films now is to look for clues, to wonder if that bit of dialogue expresses this tendency or if that plot line involving an ever-younger actress is the manifestation of a particular predilection.
Every Woody Allen film has become an echo chamber, an audience exercise in laughing and recoiling, forgetting and remembering, vilifying and forgiving. “The curse of personal cinema is that it is the curse of personal cinema,” says Jeanine Basinger, chairwoman of the film studies program at Middletown’s Wesleyan University and author of several acclaimed film history books. “If a director has a style that is impersonal--and there are many great directors who don’t make movies about their own angst--that’s one thing. But because Allen did and does and talks about it and stars himself in his movies, it is hard for us to separate him.”
Consider “Scorpion.” Set in the 1940s, Allen’s period comedy concerns his character, Briggs, a top insurance investigator, whose professional life is turned upside down by two events. One is the installation at office headquarters of Hunt’s character, efficiency expert Betty Ann Fitzgerald. The other is a nightclub outing during which Briggs and Betty Ann are hypnotized by a magician wielding a jade scorpion. The hypnotist later manipulates both into pulling off complicated jewel heists.
It is a plot line in which Allen toys with the manner in which waking life and the dreamier state of hypnosis inform on one another, in which the self is divided into halves (each unaware of the other), in which Allen’s Briggs essentially pursues himself and in which love that blossoms while in a state of hypnosis is later threatened by, as Briggs puts it, “the ugly curtain of reality.”
Because Allen happens to be one of cinema’s most self-absorbed and psychologically insightful directors, “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” appears at times to be the vetting of his own questions about his off-screen conduct and its ramifications.
The problem facing the audience is how to maintain its hypnotized state--the one enjoyed in the pre-scandal, pre-tabloid days of “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and every other beloved Allen picture.
Allen is not the first artist (politician or religious figure) to have elicited moral indignation or social criticism from audiences. If some, such as former President Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have found their way to forgiveness, others such as actor Pee-wee Herman and director Roman Polanski remain shadowed or exiled.
The extent to which Allen’s case is particularly uncomfortable has mostly to do with the types of perceived transgressions involved. That he divorced Mia Farrow and married his stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn, makes most people queasy. The unsubstantiated allegation that he abused one of the children he adopted with Farrow may point to the wrath of an ex-partner scorned, but it still makes people uncomfortable. “The areas Woody is associated with, incest and child molestation--and I’m not saying he’s guilty, make that very clear--but those are really still taboos, and big ones,” Basinger says.
In “Jade Scorpion,” Allen seems to make the case for redemption based on a level of honesty--the kind that has always been a hallmark of his films, even when, as in “Deconstructing Harry,” the truth is ugly.
Hornblow is a film writer for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune company.