Asleep at the wheel

Woody Allen's Curse of the Jade Scorpion a slight effort

Woody Allen writes and directs one movie a year, and in the last decade he's established a pattern of making more misses than hits. For every spark of brilliance, fans have had to endure twice as many clunkers.

When Allen hits, he's dead-on. 1999's Sweet and Lowdown, an intriguing tale about a self-destructive jazz guitarist whose pursuit of fame destroys his one chance at happiness, demonstrated a level of storytelling and insight into human nature that has eluded Allen in recent years. But in its wake came Small Time Crooks, a disastrous, unfunny crapfest in which the director miscast himself, of all people, as a dimwitted criminal from the Boroughs.

Perhaps Allen should consider taking a year off to allow his creative juices to marinate awhile. This year's outing, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, is a slight effort that proves mildly entertaining but ultimately forgettable.

Initially Jade Scorpion holds promise. An homage to 1940s-style detective movies, the film strikes all the right notes in the look and feel of the era. Apartments are appointed with silk lampshades, upholstered club chairs and pedestal ashtrays. The characters all drink and smoke with abandon, and the rapid dialogue is delivered with snap.

The film casts Allen as C.W. Briggs, a cocky investigator for an insurance agency, whose office banter ranges from bragging about cracking his latest case to trading double-entendres with the dewy, doe-eyed secretary (Elizabeth Berkley). There's one thing that sticks in Briggs' craw, though, and that's Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), the company's new efficiency expert who threatens to make Briggs and his whole department obsolete.

At an office party at the Rainbow Room, Briggs and Betty Ann are called on stage to participate in a floorshow featuring Voltan the hypnotist (David Ogden Stiers), who, unbeknownst to the sparring partners, puts them under a spell that lasts long after they leave the stage. The next day, Briggs is hot on the trail of a new case involving a jewel thief who's disarming security systems and burglarizing wealthy policy-holders with mysterious ease. Soon Briggs and Betty Ann begin suspecting each other of the crimes.

There is no mystery to Jade Scorpion. The audience is clued in from the beginning as to what's behind the goings-on, so it's just a matter of biding one's time until the characters on screen figure it all out. For color, Allen's thrown in his usual assortment of supporting characters, most notably Dan Aykroyd as the avuncular boss who has more than a professional interest in Betty Ann and Charlize Theron as an icy blonde femme fatale.

The problem with The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is that once the conflict is set up, it's just a matter of following point A to point B to point C before the end credits roll. Allen's greatest appeal as a director is his ability to make his audience laugh while at the same time revealing something about the complexity of relationships that they can chew on after the movie is over. But in Curse, the laughs are few and there's nothing of consequence to ponder.

The film's production notes draw a parallel between the characters of Betty Ann and the secretary as examples of two types of working girls — one the sweet innocent who's waiting for Mr. Right, the other a ball-buster who settles for Mr. Right Now — but the film never really makes that connection. Berkley's screen time barely rates as more than window dressing. She's as much a Silver Screen stereotype as is Theron's character, while Betty Ann is the only fully realized female character of the bunch.

Fans of Allen's more substantive movies from the past decade, like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives, will no doubt walk out of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion wondering: Where were the sexual politics? Where were the human foibles? Where were the lovable neuroses? Apparently they took the year off.??