Recently, it seems as if Woody Allen is undergoing a cinematic second wind. A filmmaker who would take a noticable pause between pictures, it's only been a year since "Small Time Crooks" and it'll only be another year before the director brings out yet another picture. Unfortunately, after watching "Curse of the Jade Scorpion", it appears Allen has already worn himself thin. A director who one could count on, almost like a "brand name", for intelligent, witty jokes delivered at a rapid clip, Allen's pictures now are rarely distinguishable from all of the other mild-mannered romantic comedies that come and go.
"Jade Scorpion" takes place in the 1940's at an insurance office. Allen stars as CW Briggs, one of the company's top insurance investigators. He's a ladie's man and generally has a sixth sense about his job, but he runs into opposition with Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), a fiesty blonde who would rather see Briggs out on the street for good rather than out on the street for another case. The two have much in the way of 40's-style old-school bickering, yet this is where the movie fails, which I'll discuss later.
The two are brought together on a stage by a hypnotist named "The Jade Scorpion". He fools with the two for a few moments and soon, they're confessing love for one another. What nobody knows, though, is that he's got plans to use them later. When he calls either and tells them a word, he gets one or the other to do his stealing for him, causing both (especially CW) to find themselves in trouble.
The film suffers highly from several problems. First, the witty banter between Hunt's character and Allen is not funny or even slightly entertaining. In fact, it becomes repetitive and stale as the movie progresses - the two have very little chemistry. As wonderful an actress as I believe Hunt to be, she doesn't seem entirely comfortable here and her lines seem rather forced across as a result. As for Allen's performance, I still believe his best recent performance was actually playing himself in the documentary "Wild Man Blues". But, as the angry relationship between CW and Betty Ann is the main focus of the movie, it really makes the entire picture seem to drag endlessly. Decent supporting performances are provided by Dan Ackroyd, Wallace Shawn and especially Charlize Theron. Theron is the only one here who seems to be having the least bit of fun and, as a result, her performance is easily one of the film's best - if not the best. Unfortunately, her role is also one of the smallest, but at least she makes an impact. I'd have liked to see Theron play Hunt's role.
There's very little in the way of laughs here, but at least there's a lot of atmosphere. The recreation of the 40's era is highly impressive and I'd guess that's where most of the budget went to. Famed cinematographer Zhao Fei also lends the film a gorgeously glossy look. As one might guess, director Allen also remains one of the few directors in the world to still - dissapointingly - stick to presenting his films in mono audio, which is starting to become an annoyance.
"Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is such an insubstancial little film, though, that it becomes hard to sit through. It's far less funnier than it seems to think it is and the pairing of Hunt and Allen is a suprising miss. Hopefully, Allen's next one, which isn't too far away already, will be far less ordinary than this one, which is quite a dissapointment.
VIDEO: "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is presented by Dreamworks in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Dreamworks concerned many by ending off 2001 with a rather mediocre transfer for "Evolution". Unfortunately, "Curse of the Jade Scorpion", while not quite as flawed as "Evolution"'s presentation, does suffer from some problems of its own. Sharpness and detail are understandably less than stellar, as the picture is intentionally going for a soft, "period" look.
The slight softness is acceptable, but there are some other elements of the presentation that are not. There are some instances of mild edge enhancement that were visible, as well as some slight traces of pixelation. Print flaws were a problem also, but not a significant one - only a few little specks appeared.
Colors were the most remarkable element of the picture quality. The interiors displayed rich and warm colors that looked well-saturated and often beautiful. Flesh tones remained accurate and natural, as well. This isn't a terrible presentation, but some flaws keep it from being as good as it could be.
SOUND: Woody Allen continues his irritating record of being one of the few directors left who actually offers his films only in mono audio. "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is no different, as Allen's mixture of old blues standards and dialogue are the two elements that fight for space on the mono presentation. Both succeed fairly well at making their case; the old blues tunes are limited in audio quality by their age, but at least sound fairly crisp. Dialogue also comes through clearly and sounds natural. For mono, this is okay, but one wishes that Allen would consider moving into modern technology and present his films in 5.1, or at least stereo.
MENUS:: Slightly animated main menu with film-themed images as backgrounds.
EXTRAS: Trailer, production notes, cast/crew bios.
Final Thoughts: "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" isn't awful, but it's the worst picture that I've seen from Allen. The DVD edition from Dreamworks is not pleasing, either - the high $32.95 price tag is for a disc that doesn't have exemplary audio/video and is thin in the supplements department. Hardcore Allen fans may want to rent it.