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Woody Returns to Comic Roots


The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (R)

Woody Allen digs back into his early days as a comedy gag writer to make a vivid '40s-era comedy packed with laugh-inducing one-liners and gorgeous bygone New York atmospheres. Allen plays C.W. Briggs, a crackerjack insurance investigator at polar odds with Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), a tyrannical efficiency expert recently hired to streamline the company.

The fun gets cooking when a magician known as Voltan the Jade Scorpion (David Ogden Stiers) hypnotizes the bitter rivals into being temporarily in love at a dinner club, and later takes advantage of his subjects by using code words to send them out on unconscious jewel-stealing missions.

In the face of a sagging career, due largely to his controversial personal life, Allen has resorted to the raw elements of what makes comedy funny: timing, delivery and imagery. It's a confection that pops with gentle surprises.

With The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Woody Allen mutes the overcompensating slack moral tone of his last four films (Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, Sweet and Lowdown, and Small Time Crooks). In each of his last four movies (made since his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn), Allen has gone to great roundabout lengths to put across an idea that grossly talented ambitious people have weak morals that are their own form of punishment. It's only now that Allen is starting to curb his heart-on-his-sleeve tendencies and it's refreshing to see a Woody Allen film where you don't feel like you're looking at someone's poorly washed laundry in every other scene.

This time Allen focuses on comedic dialogue and verbal zingers for their own value. Betty Ann's endless invocations of lower lifeforms to describe C.W. provide a wellspring of funny moments. Allen has boiled down his comedy to stock elements that he feels most comfortable with. The movie is a chamber-piece crime caper set in 1940, so Allen is free to include different versions of Morgan Lewis' "How High the Moon" against gorgeous New York backgrounds without apology. The handpicked ensemble cast works flawlessly in delivering every slick one-liner with exactly the right amount of snap and tone. You could close your eyes and enjoy the movie for what the actors accomplish with simple phrasing jabs and vocal lilt.

But that's not to say you'll be able to get your eyes off of Charlize Theron as a Dashiell Hammett honey-lipped bombshell with a weakness for trouble and beds.

Between Allen's goofy but clever little old man detective and Helen Hunt's vitriolic woman-on-a-mission is enough antagonism to set off bombs in Union Square. Neither C.W. nor Betty Ann "Fitz" is an especially likable character, and that's the queasy shtick that makes them fun to watch. They berate each other in such obvious and nasty ways that when an attraction sparks up between them, it comes with a message of liberated repression in their kiss.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is best appreciated in the context of dexterous comedic writing in a style that comes directly from live theater. It's a view into how screwball comedy is built as much on snippy one-liners as it is on unlikely situations. Where a comedy like Rat Race relies too heavily on physical sight gags for its humor to add up, Jade Scorpion plays on its fussy dialogue to reinforce comic discoveries. It's in showing the personalities behind their facades that Allen puts funny faces to wacky ideas.

Woody Allen is still one of the best comic writers we have, even if his filmmaking has necessarily been confined to smaller films. Dan Aykroyd, Wallace Shawn and David Ogden Stiers give enormous depth to the contained farcical background of Allen's smart-aleck quips and jaunty antics.

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