Starring: Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Charlize Theron, David Ogden Stiers
Rated PG-13 for Some Sexual Content
As is the case with many a misfire, it's easy to see what "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is trying to be. Parodying the Bogart-esque film noir movies is a difficult task, but I could see it being a fun time at the movies. In fact, there are times when Allen shows us flashes of what it could have been. But the whole thing never really comes together. It's fitfully amusing and rarely dull, but it's not a successful movie.
CW Briggs (Allen) is a hardboiled private dick for the North West insurance firm. He's hugely successful with his lowlife contacts and ability to think like a criminal. However, his boss Chris Magruder (Aykroyd) has brought in an efficiency expert named Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Hunt) to take the office into the modern times (the film is set in 1940). For CW, it's hate at first sight, and the feeling is mutual. Which makes it all the more hilarious for their co-workers when they go see a hypnotist, they confess their undying love for each other. What none of them know is that the Voltan (Stiers) is a crook who plans to use CW and Betty to steal jewels from their clients. Thus, they investigate their own crimes.
The movie is part homage and part parody, and finding that sweet spot is immensely difficult for a filmmaker. Wes Craven did it with the "Scream" franchise and it was done twice with the "Kick-Ass" movies, but Allen doesn't find it. The plot is thin enough for a farce, which would be okay if the humor and genre nods were strong enough to compensate, but they're not. The humor is inconsistent at best, tepid at worst.
Woody Allen felt it was a mistake to cast himself in the lead role. I can see that. A nebbish neurotic doesn't really fit into a film noir. But it's not as distracting as you might think. What doesn't work is him being perceived as being attractive by the likes of Helen Hunt, Elizabeth Berkley, and Charlize Theron (looking astonishingly similar to Veronica Lake). Even for a comic concept, that's pushing it. His co-stars are mixed. The best performances go to Helen Hunt (no surprise there) and David Ogden Stiers (whose voice is perfectly hypnotic). Reliable actors Dan Akyroyd and Charlize Theron are both flat.
The screenplay should have gone through another edit. Some of the barbs that CW and Betty Ann throw at each other are amusing, but others feel awkward. Even in this context, calling someone a "ferret" feels tone-deaf. Some Betty Ann's conversation-ending insults go on for far too long. One-liners work best when they are kept short.
Pacing is key for both comedy and mystery, and that's another area where the film comes up short. It feels padded, and that leads to boredom. The film is 103 minutes long, and it could have been easily pared down to about 90 (roughly the ideal length for a comedy). It would help the film's narrative momentum and maybe even save a few of the jokes.
Film noir is a genre that is ripe for parody, or at least being fused with comedy. For those of you who are interested, there is a movie that came out the year before called "The Whole Nine Yards" that did it better. I suggest watching that one instead. It's funnier, more clever, and more suspenseful. And it also contains one of cinema's greatest comic performances. As if the sight of a menacing Bruce Willis going head to head with a panic-stricken Matthew Perry wasn't enough.