Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is Woody Allen's tribute to the Hollywood films of the 1940s, the hard-boiled detective noirs and screwball comedies in which hapless men and tough-talking women sparred against each other. It's clearly a loving, affectionate tribute, a well-meaning attempt to capture the atmosphere of films that mean quite a lot to the director. But while there are moments of witty brilliance here and there, the film as a whole is too often awkward and overwritten, its tortured lines, written to be delivered at the amphetaminic pace of the best screwball farces, coming out slow and hesitant in the mouths of such definitively non-screwball actors as Helen Hunt and Woody himself. Woody's sense of humor is simply not the humor of the 40s comedies; he's too neurotic, too jittery, even at his wittiest too slow in his delivery to get across material like this. As insurance company detective CW Briggs — a nebbishy figure right out of Woody's beloved 40s noir Double Indemnity — Woody's sparring with his company's "efficiency expert" Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Hunt) comes off as flat and unfunny.

The dialogue is inert, dead, pulpishly overwritten: it might've seemed funnier on the page but both Woody and especially Hunt often seem to be tripping over it, struggling to get it all out. The lines lose their bite when delivered this way. Lines this purple and self-conscious need to be spit out in one long breath with the pauses all spliced out, like the way Cary Grant would handle the big ungainly chunks of dialogue he'd be given in a Howard Hawks movie, or the way Jimmy Cagney stomped his way through Billy Wilder's insanely funny One, Two, Three. Woody, even in his "early, funny ones," never had this kind of speed. He has always interspersed his more manic moments with comparatively laidback interludes, and often let his best one-liners slip out almost unnoticed from the casual flow of his schtick. Even his early comedies have a sense of deliberate pacing, as though he always wants to leave some air, some breath, in between the jokes. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, if it were to be truly successful, would require a different treatment, one that Woody doesn't seem able to deliver; the result is a comedy that's all air, all breath, with few enough jokes.

To the extent that the film banks its success on the chemistry — both venomously hostile and, suppressed underneath, romantic — between Briggs and Fitzgerald, the film can only be a failure. Hunt is a fine actress, but she's badly miscast here, unable to make anything of her character's generic ambitions or the mostly ludicrous dialogue Woody gives her. Her parting shots at Briggs, meant to be funny because of the incredibly specific death wishes she spits at him, are always so flatly delivered that they never fail to kill the scene completely. It seems like Woody is striving for the kind of antagonistic relationship that so often drove the best screwball romances and their more serious counterparts, the noir hero's relationship to the femme fatale: Grant/Hepburn, Grant/Russell, Lombard/Barrymore, Bogart/Bacall. These classic duos had an easy, casual patter that belied the amount of dialogue they were throwing back and forth. They could toss around elaborately written lines, embedded with subtle jokes and sexual double entendres, and make it seem like they were just having a normal, perfectly laidback conversation. Woody doesn't quite have that knack here, and whether it's in the writing or the acting isn't always clear; either way, neither he nor Hunt is ever able to make this script sound the least bit natural or aesthetically satisfying as dialogue.

Woody makes much better use of Charlize Theron, whose cameo as the seductive heiress Laura Kensington recalls both her former hilarious bit turn as a nymphomaniac supermodel in Celebrity and the wild, sexy society heiresses played by Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers in Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep, one of Woody's many obvious 40s touchstones here. Theron, at least, has a handle on the way this pulpy dialogue should be delivered: she drawls it out, with a sexual frankness that makes its artificiality irresistible rather than, as it so often is with Hunt or Woody, distracting. It helps, perhaps, that her character is the film's most blatant artificial construct, the archetypal noir femme fatale, with her performance especially derived from Bacall's onscreen persona. Theron gets it down perfectly, from the sultry way she smokes a cigarette to the wry, raised-eyebrow way she delivers her literary come-ons. Every second she's onscreen is a second spent imagining a much better, infinitely funnier movie centered around her character. Her cameo here, as in Celebrity, shuts down everything else for as long as she's around; she dominates the screen so easily that one wishes she got more work in comedies.

Theron's performance aside, the film has some amusing moments here and there (like the way Woody recontextualizes Hitchcock's famous fireworks kiss into an actual fireworks factory in Chinatown), but its fluffy plot and inert parody of screwballs and noirs drag it down. Even Woody himself doesn't get off a lot of great lines. Usually, the one thing that can be counted on in a Woody Allen comedy is plenty of quotable, witty dialogue, but when Curse's script isn't torturously overwritten, it's simply dull and generic, with a lot of dead space and unnecessary lulls. It spends much of its length evoking the much better films it's striving to pay homage to, but its awkward imitations inevitably make one wish one was watching The Big Sleep or His Girl Friday instead.


Tim said...

So I guess you've finally seen a Woody film you didn't like! Still pretty remarkable that it took you this long to find one (and him that long to make one).
I still enjoy that film though, mainly because it worked for me, at the time, as an introduction to the type of films you mentioned throughout your review. I found it fascinating and the dialogue, compared to the average Hollywood pap I had seen, was razor sharp and the film was filled with one liners. I can see now the criticisms you mention are more valid though, but I can still sit and enjoy this film.
This is also the film that the NY Times launched a little mini-critical war on Woody when, after Canby retired, they ran that front page "Curse of the Jaded Audience: Woody Allen, in Art and Life" article that he is still recovering from critically. Ever since then it has been fashionable to write off everything Woody has done for the past 15+ years.

Zhao Fei's cinematography and Santo's set designs are both quite enjoyable in the film, as is the soundtrack selection of Wilbur De Paris' "In A Persian Market" and Duke's "Sophisticated Lady".

Should be interesting to see what you make of the next batch of Woody films seeing as you clearly didn't like this one. IMO, it gets worse (Anything Else specifically) before it gets better (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Ed Howard said...

Tim, there have certainly been other Woody movies I've found flawed or problematic in various ways (Alice, Interiors, Mighty Aphrodite), and I've always felt that a few of Woody's early comedies (Bananas, Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Sex) haven't held up that well. But you're right that this is really the first of his films that I can call mostly unsuccessful, even if there are still a few things to like: Charlize Theron, the fun soundtrack, the nostalgic mood.

I loved the song that plays during the robbery sequences, that was an inspired choice; am I right in thinking that's "In a Persian Market"?

Tim said...

I didn't know you had that opinion of Interiors or the earlier stuff as you haven't reviewed them on here (yet...?). Any plans to complete Woody's oeuvre once you've caught yourself up with the next four films?

One of the big problems is that Jade Scorpion is filled with a cast of Television actors (Ackroyd, Hunt, Berkley, etc) and Woody cast himself (and, clearly, to top that off he clearly had a noticeable head cold through half the shooting). Woody suggests in "Conversations..." that Jade Scorpion is his worst film and he regrets not casting someone else in the CW Briggs role.

The robbery sequences do have "In A Persian Market", which was previously used in Woody's New York Stories segment. Woody said he wanted to use the track in Scoop as well, but figured he couldn't use it a third time and so quickly after Jade Scorpion's use of it.

Ed Howard said...

I may eventually cycle back around to some of the earlier ones that I saw before starting this blog. I don't hate any of them, even Interiors, but Woody definitely got better towards the end of the 70s (and then stayed more or less amazing for the next ~20 years, critical ups-and-downs notwithstanding).

Agreed on the TV actors, and to make matters worse he wastes a lot of the acting talent he does have: Ackroyd gets hardly a funny moment in the whole thing, and the appearances of Wallace Shawn as Briggs' co-worker are entertaining but way too brief. Hunt's the worst though: she's OK as a dramatic actress but I've always found her painfully unfunny in comedy, and never more so than here.

John said...

While this is not top notch Woody, I have always liked this film though it does bog down in spots. Like "Manhattan Murder Mystery" it is a tribute, in this case, to Bogart and noir detective films.

Tim said...

Considering how close you would be to finishing reviewing Woody's entire career, which in itself is an achievement and, might I add, reasonably rare, I think you should. Plus I'm definitely interested in knowing what you think of the big ones (Annie Hall and Manhattan) as well as the criminally underrated Stardust Memories.

Dan Ackroyd is the most irritating presence in Jade Scorpion... you can tell he was happy to be in it and very happy it was a 40's period piece, but any time his character is required to do anything other than chime in with some charming banter, he proves completely incapable of passing off any of it.

Anonymous said...

i was wondering who is playing the trumpet in the movie. It is such a beautiful solo.