Woody Allen has averaged making a movie a year since his first film as director, Take the Money and Run, in 1969. That’s quite a record, one that no other major American filmmaker even approaches. At this point, the highs and lows of his work quality-wise are less noticeable than his overall consistency. Certainly, he’s still capable of astonishing us; 1997’s Deconstructing Harry was to my mind as brilliant as any of his early masterpieces. Likewise, he occasionally turns up a dud, such as ’92’s Shadows and Fog and ’98’s Celebrity. But mostly, in the years since he quit trying to be Ingmar Bergman, Allen has settled into a comfortable, congenial groove making Woody Allen movies, meaning smart comedies often starring himself. For those of us who are his fans (most of the world stays away in droves), that’s just fine. Seeing an average, nothing-too-special Woody Allen movie is like bumping into an old friend.
That’s by way of explaining why, in calling The Curse of the Jade Scorpion an average, nothing-too-special Woody Allen movie, I mean it as a compliment. Certainly, I could understand anyone who feels like it’s a Woody Allen movie they’ve seen before. In fact, this comic crime caper set in 1940 New York joins a group of Allen comedies that evoke the Gotham of decades past: See The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, Broadway Danny Rose and Bullets over Broadway, among others. And like his last film, Small Time Crooks, it centers on Woody and larceny. But who’s complaining? Like most prolific artists, Allen understands both the pleasures and the practical advantages of familiarity.
In The Curse of Jade Scorpion–a title redolent of the pulp tales of Allen’s youth–Woody plays C.W. Briggs, an insurance investigator whose knowledge of the criminal mind and the ways of the street, he says, accounts for his success at cracking case after case. He would hate to be the crook trying to outfox himself, he observes. But he’s met his match in Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), the firm’s new efficiency executive. Not only does Betty Ann despise C.W.’s antediluvian filing system, she detests the man himself, his skirt-chasing, flippancy and professional smugness. She calls him a rat, a roach, a louse, and he gamely attempts to match her insult for insult. Luckily for Betty Ann, C.W. hasn’t caught on to the fact that she’s carrying on an office affair with their boss (Dan Aykroyd).
One night, the whole gang from the office goes to the Rainbow Room to celebrate the birthday of a co-worker. The entertainment is a magician named Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), who persuades C.W. and Betty Ann to be his subjects in a hypnotism experiment. It’s a standard routine. Using a jade scorpion as his visual instrument, Voltan tells C.W. he’ll fall into a deep trance and obey all commands when he hears the word “Constantinople.” Betty Ann will do the same on hearing “Madagascar.” The two go under and act like passionate lovers on a secluded island at Voltan’s command. Everyone laughs, and when the hypnotist awakens his subjects, they remember nothing and claim they obviously weren’t hypnotized.
That would be that, except for what happens when C.W. gets home. The phone rings. Voltan’s voice says “Constantinople” and orders C.W. to go to the house of a wealthy family and steal their jewels.
As happens in movies of this sort, whether pulp or parody, C.W. himself is the one assigned to investigate the theft the next day. For once, he doesn’t make much headway cracking the case, but he does meet the family’s wild, Veronica Lake-like siren of a daughter, Laura (Charlize Theron). Though she admits it’s slumming, she visits his apartment with a bottle of vodka that night. One thing follows another (inviting her to slip off her trenchcoat, he notes, “It hasn’t rained in this apartment in 20 years”), but just as they’re about to make love, the phone rings. Again, “Constantinople,” and C.W.’s out the door in a trance, bound for another cache of jewelry.
You can tell from this much of the story that we’re not in wildly original territory here. Hypnotism? Hasn’t that been the gag premise of at least a hundred comedies? It almost suggests a multiple choice movie quiz. Name the comic star or stars who have not made a movie in which hypnosis makes them do all sorts of wacky things: A) Charlie Chaplin B) Laurel and Hardy C) the Marx Brothers D) Hope and Crosby E) Jerry Lewis. And so on. No, I don’t know the answer offhand, but is it possible that F) Woody Allen has himself never used this premise before? Hard to believe it, if so.
Again, this isn’t to complain. The broad obviousness of the concept gives Allen a sturdy pretext for what turns out to be an adroit and agreeably conventional exercise in both comedy and filmcraft. In its very unexceptionalness, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion recalls scads of sharply written and wonderfully performed studio comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. If Jean Arthur or Edward G. Robinson walked through one of the insurance office’s doors, you’d barely be surprised. But Allen has contemporary performers who do just fine with the cusp-of-World-War-II manners. Hunt, Aykroyd, Stiers and Theron are all in top form, while the supporting cast includes the likes of Wallace Shawn and Elizabeth Berkeley.
Allen himself seems as relaxed as a professional neurotic ever gets, as well as having more fun than any self-proclaimed anhedonic should be capable of. And for a guy who turned 60 a couple of years back, he still looks remarkably boyish. Part of his easygoing ebullience obviously has to do with the fact that he enjoys recreating past eras of New York life like the one represented here. Among the movie’s various minor-key charms, the work by production designer Santo Loquasto and costumer Suzanne McCabe uses vintage wardrobes and locations like the Rainbow Room and Grand Central Station in ways that are full of subtle delights.
And if all of that doesn’t strike Woody fans as adding up to a movie worth seeing, then I have only word to add.
Constantinople. (Go, see it.)
Six or seven years ago I was given a copy of a new novel by Louis de Bernieres called Corelli’s Mandolin. I suppose I read a chapter or two before putting it down and wondering what had possessed the friend who gave it to me. Did she really think I had the slightest interest in contemporary British literary fiction? I couldn’t imagine why. Perhaps it was that the book, a World War II saga, is set on one of the Greek islands, of which I am admittedly very fond. But still. My main impression of the novel was that it would probably one day make a sappy, overblown, desperately uninteresting movie.
Et voilà. The title has been changed to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and now that it’s on celluloid it belongs to what may be my least favorite movie type of all: glossy, glibly sentimentalized visions of the Mediterranean made by the pasty, uptight British (this is unofficially known as the Enchanted April subgenre). The film was directed by John Madden (Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love), one of those capable, personalityless journeymen who’s only as good as his material. Here he’s shackled to a barrel of cultural clichés that would drag down even a very subtle director, which he’s not.
Like Mediterraneo, an equally lame Italian movie of a few years back, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin concerns the Italian occupation of a Greek island (in this case Cephallonia) during World War II. At least the Italian film had Italians playing Italians. Here, in the title role of a lusty, passionate, opera-singing, mandolin-playing Italian officer, we have–Nicolas Cage. Is your skin crawling yet?
Lately I seem to have developed a serious allergy to Cage. He has been very good in perhaps a half-dozen films, but the last of those was some years ago, and since then he’s evolved a particularly noxious form of smarminess in a load of bad roles in crappy commercial movies. Part of the problem is that Cage or Hollywood, or both, decided that he can play sympathetic and romantic leading men, when he is best suited to dumb, scuzzy losers. Watching him play a romantic Italian sounded like torture, and it is. Dante should have reserved a parking space in purgatory for it.
In addition to Cage’s simpering awfulness in the part, the movie asks us to believe that its heroine, a Greek lass named Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), would lose interest in her boyfriend, a heroic Greek resistance fighter played by the oh-so handsome and dashing Christian Bale, and fall in love with Cage, the Verdi-spouting enemy. This is like imagining that Carole Lombard would have jilted Clark Gable in order to date Himmler. I’m sure other movies have proposed stupider things, but I can’t think of one at the moment.
The movie’s casting says everything about its general tenor. Cage is American. Cruz (who gives the movie’s one strong performance) is Spanish. Bale and John Hurt, who plays Pelagia’s father, are Brits. There’s not Greek or Italian among them, and the accents they sport are a constant pain in the ear. If you’re interested in glimpsing (or hearing the sounds of) a romantic Greek island this summer, permit me to suggest that you contact your travel agent.