The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Woody Allen finally makes a truly bad film, with this laughless, unmysterious mystery/comedy set in 1940.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

2001

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is the 33rd film Woody Allen has written and directed, and the first one that I have no qualms about calling a bad movie. Not a single one of his previous films had any problem holding my interest, and they all had at least one aspect worth praising. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, though, is unfunny, brain-dead, and worst of all, astoundingly dull.

On paper, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion seems like it should be a winner. It has an interesting cast, a period setting, and a magician — in other movies, these things have been goldmines for Allen, but they’re all squandered here.

The movie is about a 1940s insurance investigator named C.W. Briggs who’s periodically hypnotized by Voltan the Magician (David Ogden Stiers). While under Voltan’s spell, Briggs commits jewelry heists. In between, he has stilted, chemistry-free exchanges with his sassy co-worker (Helen Hunt), his sexy secretary (Elizabeth Berkley) and his boss (Dan Aykroyd).

Woody Allen and David Ogden Stiers in a scene from The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Woody Allen and Elizabeth Berkley in a scene from The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

So, what goes wrong? Well, most things, but let’s start with the setting. I said in the review of Sweet and Lowdown that Woody Allen has yet to set a dull film in this era, but now he’s finally succeeded in doing just that. With Fei Zhao and Santo Loquasto returning, how is it that this film looks so lifeless? The period details are accurate and functional, but not transportive. Sweet and Lowdown, Bullets over Broadway and Radio Days take place in what feels like a whole different world, drenched in nostalgia and whimsy. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion could have been set in 2001 and all they’d have to change would be the sets.

It might have helped had Jade Scorpion been filmed in black & white. Fill the air with smoke and shadows, and when people are in the office, fill the soundtrack with whizzing typewriters, like in old movies. Maybe people could even talk in Carey Grant-esque exaggerated stage voices. The movie is aiming for comedy and serial-level mystery, yet it treats its period with grim sincerity. It’s realistic when it should be fun.

Woody Allen and Elizabeth Berkley in a scene from The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
See? Better already.

The next big problem is with the cast. Woody Allen hires Wallace Shawn and Dan Aykroyd, who are capable of being pretty funny, and doesn’t give them a chance to even try to be funny. And then there’s David Ogden Stiers as Voltan. He’s been fine in four previous Woody Allen movies, but this time he’s unforgivably boring. The part of an evil magician who uses his powers of hypnosis to steal jewels is desperately crying out for a fun performance, but Stiers acts like he just wandered in from Interiors. The role would have been far better cast with a comic actor like, oh, I don’t know, someone like Wallace Shawn, or maybe Dan Aykroyd.

David Ogden Stiers in a scene from The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

But the worst miscasting in the movie — or almost any other movie, for that matter — is in the central role. C.W. Briggs is supposed to be a womanizing, dangerous, sexy detective. Woody Allen is not these things (well, except maybe ‘womanizing’).

Woody Allen wanted Tom Hanks for the lead role, which is sort of laughable. In 2001, Tom Hanks had been paid $20 million for each of his last 4 roles — most of Allen’s movies have a total budget of less than that. He also offered the part to Jack Nicholson, who, I’m just going to assume, responded to Allen’s offer by rolling down the window of his limo just far enough so that Allen could hear him laughing in his face.

Even if Hanks or Nicholson would theoretically agree to a massive pay-cut, they presumably have legions of script-readers and agents whose job is to make sure movies as bad as this never get into their hands. If Jack Nicholson wouldn’t take a pay-cut for Hannah and her Sisters, he’s not going to take one for The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

When Hanks and Nicholson said ‘no’ Allen should have kept looking. Has he gotten so arrogant that he’ll only accept A-list superstars? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of actors at varying levels of fame that could have brought some edge or charisma to the role. Most television commercials have at least one actor that would’ve been better as Briggs. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone being worse for this part than Woody Allen.

Humphrey Bogart and Scott Baio
On the left: what Woody Allen is aiming for with his performance. On the right: what he achieves.

At the center of the movie is Briggs’ relationship with Betty Ann Fitzgerald, played by Helen Hunt. She’s an “efficiency expert” brought in to modernize the agency, and she clashes with Briggs’ old-fashioned methods. Their exchanges are clearly modeled after the sexy, verbal duals of film noires like Double Indemnity and screwball comedies like His Girl Friday.

The conversations between Briggs and Fitzgerald, though, are devoid of wit, and are the exact opposite of sexy. The dialogue is mediocre, and the timing is sloppy. Allen’s comic timing — both as an actor and director — has been off for a while now, and it costs him dearly this time. Good movies are supposed to make these things look easy, but Jade Scorpion makes it look very difficult.

Woody Allen and Helen Hunt in a scene from The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
“It’s amazing how many men I meet with a fragile masculinity.”
“Listen honey, despite all your high-falutin’ talk about streamlining the office, what you really need is a good roll in the hay”
“You wouldn’t know which way was up.”

But I think the absolute dearth of chemistry between Hunt and Allen ultimately comes back to that central casting issue. The rapport between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray depended on both of them seeming mysterious and dangerous. Helen Hunt is obviously a fine actress, but she’s too nice for this part. And as for Allen, the idea that anyone would look at this silly, awkward little man and think of him as some sort of mysterious bad-ass is so ridiculous it’s almost offensive. Mostly, though, it’s just embarrassing to witness — like watching high-school kids acting out scenes from their favorite movies, but not as cute.

Woody Allen also casts Charlize Theron, an Oscar winner and one of the most beautiful women in the world, as a socialite whose only distinguishing characteristic is that she desperately wants to have sex with him. Allen the screenwriter seems to be at least sort of aware of how absurd this is, and has her say things like “it makes no sense that I’m so attracted to a myopic insurance detective” — but that doesn’t change the fact that Woody Allen cast one of the most beautiful women in the world as a socialite whose only distinguishing characteristic is that she desperately wants to have sex with him.

Woody Allen and Charlize Theron in a scene from The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Woody Allen and Charlize Theron in a scene from The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Stop it Woody, you’re creeping us all out.

The movie’s final failing is its storytelling. The magician is behind the jewel thieving — we’re told that right off the bat, so there’s no mystery for us, but it takes Briggs and his detective colleagues the whole damn movie to figure it out. Woody Allen never actually went to film school, but if he had, here’s something he would have learned on day one: it’s no fun sitting around watching characters trying to figure out something that we already know.

This plot device, in addition to being clumsily trotted out, is just not interesting. A magician phones Briggs, says his hypnosis keyword (“Constantinople”) which throws him into a trance, and then instructs him to steal jewels from a designated location. Briggs’ eyes glaze over and he marches like a zombie over to the house, steals the jewels, goes home, and awakes, not remembering anything. Is this supposed to be funny? Exciting? You could make a case for it being kind of cute the first time, but after it happens 10 more times, it’s just torture.

Woody Allen in a scene from The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Riveting.

Complementing the film’s utter lack of mystery, comedy and excitement is its utter lack of suspense. In a proper noire thriller, you’d expect Briggs and his colleagues to put together clues which slowly start to add up and eventually lead them to the real villain. Instead, no one has any idea what’s going on until well past the hour mark of the movie, and then some random guy just shows up out of nowhere and tells Briggs that the magician is the bad guy. Then one of Briggs’ co-workers reveals, also out of nowhere, that he’s a magician, and cures him of his hypnosis. My jaw dropped when these revelations occurred. The average episode of Murder, She Wrote makes more of an effort to involve the viewer in its plot.

Woody Allen and Dan Moran in a scene from The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Pictured: one of the laziest Deus Ex Machinas in film history — some guy with no previous lines, no motivation and no name, showing up out of nowhere to solve the central mystery of the film for the protagonist only to then disappear without ever being mentioned or referenced again.

My understanding of Woody Allen’s artistic trajectory was that it was a slow decline, but I see now that it’s more of spectacular, flaming crash. Just two years ago he directed Sweet and Lowdown, which was almost perfect, and now he’s made this — not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but one of the least interesting. For decades it seemed like he could do no wrong and even his half-assed movies were pretty good. But The Curse of the Jade Scorpion shows us a dark new side of Allen — one that’s capable of making truly terrible films.

Fun Facts

  • For what it’s worth, Woody Allen agrees with me: he also thinks this is his worst movie. (Allen: “I feel that maybe — and there are many candidates for this — but it may be the worst film I’ve made. I have great regrets and embarrassment.”)
  • Allen wanted to re-shoot the film, September-style, but the expensive sets had already been destroyed and the budget wouldn’t allow for them to be re-created.
  • The protagonist was originally a private detective, but Allen switched it to insurance investigator when he found out he’d be playing the role himself (he didn’t think he’d be credible as a detective).
  • Woody Allen came up with the movie’s general plot 40 years earlier, when he conceived of it as a sketch for one of the shows he was writing for at the time.
  • This movie got Allen’s widest opening yet (900 theatres) but had an abysmal $2.5 million opening. It was fairly successful overseas, however.
  • The Curse of the Jade Scorpion had a budget of $26 million — which is still, 11 years later, the largest of Allen’s career.
  • This was the second film of Allen’s three-film deal with DreamWorks. Unless Hollywood Ending is better than it looks, DreamWorks got kinda screwed. Hopefully they made enough money selling Antz toys to make up for this three-picture black hole.
  • The song that plays every time someone gets hypnotized is “In A Persian Market” by Wilbur de Paris.
  • Produced by Woody Allen’s sister, Letty Aronson, who’s also produced all of his movies since.
  • In the interest of giving praise where it’s due, the Curse of The Jade Scorpion has one of the most attractive DVD menus of any Woody Allen movie yet.
    The Curse of the Jade Scorpion DVD menu
    It starts out all purple, and then the yellow circle opens and the scorpion comes down. It’s pretty neat.
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