The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

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Woody Allen has lost it. Last year’s “Small Time Crooks,” while funny, was so slight it went unnoticed. Now, “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” is so limp and weak it practically evaporates on the screen.

It’s not a film you dislike. Nothing in it is egregiously stupid, amateurish or annoying. It’s an old-fashioned comedy that, for all its effort, is never anything more than gentle and quaint.

Writer/director Allen stars as CW Briggs, a New York insurance investigator in 1940. He’s the best in the business, stuck in his ways, unkempt and a hopeless skirt-chaser.

The woman who will tame him is no-nonsense Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), an efficiency expert hired to improve the firm’s work habits. She and CW clash, of course, and engage in a great deal of barbed dialogue. “I don’t want people to think I’m with you,” she says as she scoots away from him at a bar. “Why?” he replies. “Do I look like an organ-grinder?”

While celebrating a co-worker’s birthday at a nightclub, Betty Ann and CW are hypnotized by a con artist (David Ogden Stiers). He makes them think they’re madly in love, and gives them each a keyword as a post-hypnotic suggestion. He ends the session, everyone laughs, and everything’s back to normal.

Until a few nights later, when the hypnotist calls CW on the phone, says the keyword — “Constantinople” — and instructs him to steal a bunch of jewels from the Kensington mansion. CW’s the right man for the job, as he’s learned all about burgling while working as an insurance investigator. Next day, CW is called in to investigate the very crime he perpetrated, which he now has no memory of.

These are fun ideas, to be sure, and you can’t blame Woody Allen for wanting to try them. But the script is watery and lifeless, sparked by a few good moments but overall uneventful. The film’s slow pace doesn’t help build comedy momentum, either. We get some funny lines every 10 minutes or so, and then pleasant blandness.

The cast is fun to watch, though. Wallace Shawn is in there, and Dan Aykroyd plays CW and Betty Ann’s boss. Charlize Theron shows up at the requisite femme fatale. Elizabeth Berkley hangs around. Being in a Woody Allen film used to be a treat for actors, but if the scripts he churns out are going to be this dull from now on, perhaps that day has passed.

There is a certain amount of charm in the proceedings; period pieces are usually nice, and 1940 Manhattan was a lovely time. Allen’s fondness for the city comes through loud and clear, as does his affection for the screwball comedies of that era that inspired “Jade Scorpion.” Good intentions aside, though, the film fails to do much more than wile away a couple hours.

C+ (; PG-13, some sexually suggestive dialogue.)

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