The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Written and directed by Woody Allen

Starring Woody Allen, Helen Hunt


The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

We look with a mixture of anger and sadness at athletes who outlive their skills but won't give up. They've lost a step, they miss the plays they once made, their cutback runs don't fool the defense anymore, they leave their pitches out in the middle of the plate, their timing is off and won't come back.

That's what we feel as we watch Woody Allen's new film "The Curse of the Jade Dragon." All the old moves are there, but they're a step slower and easier to spot because we've seen them all already, done better in the old days, and done with a higher level of skill. Allen has written a charming period piece, albeit not terribly original, but then he's made the fatal choice to both direct it and cast himself in the lead. I realize it's heresy to suggest that he is not the best director of his own material, but this is a film that cries out for Barry Sonnenfeld's style (he of "Get Shorty" and "Men in Black"). It needs Sonnenfeld's dry, fast pacing, his ability to understate his dialogue scenes, his refusal to linger on every intimation of romance or sex in the film.

And most of all it needs a different male lead. Who can possibly believe, these days, that Helen Hunt and Charlize Theron would actually find Allen's character - any Allen character - worth sleeping with, much less falling in love with, and even, God help us, marrying.

But as I say, the story is cute. The year is 1940, in production designer Santo Loquasto's wonderful re-creation of the period. Allen is C.W. Briggs, ace investigator for the North Coast Insurance Company, solving thefts and restoring property by instinct, intuition, and a network of street people who know things the cops will never know. As the film opens, he's just found and returned a stolen Picasso that had been hidden in a telescope.

His nemesis at the office is Miss Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), the new efficiency expert who regards Briggs as a gnat to be squashed in the cause of better work habits. But one night at an office party at the Rainbow Room he and she are hypnotized by Voltan, the nightclub magician (David Ogden Stiers), who implants in each of them a word that he will later use to force them to commit criminal acts. The rest of the film is an uneasy mixture of in-and-out hypnotic states combined with a painfully unfunny attempt at the kind of mutual insults that Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell traded in Howard Hawks' film "His Girl Friday."

There's a kind of subplot involving Hunt and Dan Aykroyd, and a brief moment with Theron as what you might call a refugee from "The Big Sleep," but apart from the authenticity of the period sets and costumes, there isn't a truly honest moment in the film. By now Allen is all shtick and no wit, all stammer and hand-waving and no believability. There was a time, for example in the 1973 work of genius "Sleeper," when he could do anything on screen, including a piece of extended silent physical comedy that has never been bettered. Now, though, he's just a shell of that old self. We love him but someone needs to say 'enough.'