I usually do not read movie reviews prior to actually seeing a film. This has a tendency to influence what I think, or even how I watch a movie. I made the mistake of reading a few reviews of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion before I watched it. As I watched Woody Allen's latest opus, a tribute to the quick-witted screwball' comedies of the late 1930's and early 1940's, I found myself mentally arguing with the reviewers. The very issues they had with this movie were some of it's greatest features. The plotline for Scorpion is simple. Allen portrays an old school' insurance company detective with a fantastic record for solving his cases. Helen Hunt is a `streamlining expert' brought in to bring the insurance company in-step with the `modern world' of the 1940's. Allen and Hunt's characters are like water and oil. The two are hypnotized (with a Jade Scorpion used to induce the trance, hence the title) in a stage show, and later the hypnotist calls on Allen to steal the very jewels his company insures; Allen has no knowledge he has done this. The fun ensues as Allen attempts to find the person responsible for the thefts. While this is an over simplification of the actual story, the actual story is perhaps too simple and predictable as well, but this is not the reason people go to Woody Allen movies. It is the well written dialog that fits each person delivering the lines; the meticulous attention to detail of a period movie that works like a time machine transporting the audience on a trip to sixty years in the past; the unpredictable humor that fills each predictable twist. These are things that makes this movie work.
One review criticized the casting of Allen in the lead role. Allen, now 66, `was not believable in a romantic lead', and the critic went on to suggest that another actor should have been used. This thought was swimming through my mind throughout the two hours of the movie. Allen was perfect for the role. His character, C.W. Biggs, is an aging insurance investigator, with few redeeming characteristics. He is not supposed to be handsome or attractive. Yes, the Wood-Man is getting old, but it works for the movie. There are some unflattering shots where we see his Godfather-like jowls. This is not the same thirty-something guy from Bananas or Sleeper; he is a sixty-something old man. We need to accept this. It is apparent that the filmmaker has accepted this for himself, and tailored the film to work with this in mind. Helen Hunt's Betty Ann Fitzgerald can't stand C.W. in any way, and it is only after Volton (David Ogden Stires) hypnotizes her in a magic show does she not show that she loathes him. Sexy and rich socialite Laura Kensington, portrayed by the beautiful 26 year-old Charlize Theron, is attracted to Biggs because he the antithesis of her past conquests: something new and different. Sure, he could have cast someone else, perhaps Jason Alexander, into his Biggs role. While it would have certainly made an entertaining movie, there would have been something lost. Woody needs to be in Woody Allen movies. It just works.
Another critic panned the casting of Elizabeth (Saved by the Bell, Showgirls) Berkley with such actors as Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Wally Shawn, et al. True enough, Berkley's acting talents do not match up with the names I mentioned; but the casting of Berkley for the minor role of office secretary Jill' is perfect nonetheless. Allen's attention to detail cannot be overlooked. I first noticed in his 1987 film, Radio Days, just how detail oriented he can be. As a musician, and something of an aficionado of vintage musical instruments, I always look for anachronisms in period movies when a band is featured. I can usually tell the year a wind instrument was made just by looking at it. Not only were all of the instruments true to the time portrayed, the label on the mute (a Humes and Berg Stonelined') used by a trombone was correct for the period. One off the shelf in a music store today looks identical, except for small differences in the label. I was amazed that this level of detail was made. I am convinced this level of detail was made in the casting as well. This movie is not only set in New York in 1940, but also as a Hollywood movie made in 1940; clichés common to movie making of the time abounded. I believe the casting of Berkley in her role is another one of these details. A movie made in that time would have featured headliners from the stable of lead actors from a movie studio, or perhaps one loaned from another. These would be people in the roles Allen, Hunt and Aykroyd had. The role of the office secretary would not have been filled by a star, but by one of the studio's contract players sent to the production by central casting. There were many young, gorgeous actresses with questionable acting talent that were picked up by a studio in hopes of her developing into the flavor-of-the-week, or maybe for just a ride on the casting couch. Elizabeth Berkley filled this role flawlessly. She hit her marks, said her lines, and that's about it. I think it is just what the writer / director wanted.
The ensemble cast all delivered credible performances. Like a film of the time, the only performances that stand out are those of the leads; it is Woody Allen and Helen Hunt's movie, as it should be. (William Powell and Myrna Loy stand out in front of the cast of 1934's The Thin Man, who remembers Nat Pendleton or Minna Gombel?) Dan Aykroyd plays an adulterant Insurance Company C.E.O. in much the same way as his dramatic performances in Driving Miss Daisy or My Girl: understated and credible. He allows the writing to do the comedy for him, without having to work at it. Charlize Theron's (Cider House Rules, The Astronaut's Wife) roll is smaller than her on-screen presence. She makes for a perfect 1940's screen vixen. David Ogden Stires always gives a good performance, and was able to shake the shadow of M*A*S*H's Maj. Winchester for a dead-perfect evil magician. Wallace Shawn in a Woody Allen movie is like having ice cream on a slice of cherry pie; always a welcome presence. You may also see a familiar face or two but can never place the name; John Schuck, a veteran movie and television actor (Sgt. Charlie Enright on TV's McMillon and Wife) is one of them. It is apparent that the writing was crafted for the star players, and terrific casting took care of the rest.
Movies can be many things. Some can inspire, some can be extremely poignant. Others can just simply entertain. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion falls under the entertaining types. A perfect diversion as a weekend matinee, or as a follow-up to a nice dinner out, Scorpion does not make use of low-brow humor and stays true to the 1940's flair the movie, itself, portrays.
With romantic interests like Helen Hunt and Charlize Theron, Woody Allen gives all men hope as we get older.