Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

Then Having missed it's tiny release at British cinemas, the first opportunity I had to buy a copy of the film was at the Virgin Megastore in Paris whilst I was visiting at 11pm at night for the novelty of shopping that late. But I’d vowed to pick something French so left with a copy of Gilles Mimouni’s brain twister L'Appartement instead (later remade/ruined in the US as Wicker Park). Then a UK dvd release wasn’t forthcoming, so the first time I saw the film was on a US edition ordered through Amazon I think, which was eventually replaced with an ex-rental from the ill-fated Choice Video shop on Smithdown Road next to Tesco.

Now Well, colour me surprised. On first viewing The Curse of the Jade Scorpion on the 22nd July 2004 (see here), I was bored and annoyed and that was the impression which stayed with me right through to writing my film review of the noughties, where I said, along with Hollywood Ending that I thought it looked “cheap and rushed” and that Woody’s “own on screen comic timing was very clearly faltering”. The director himself apparently thinks it's his worst film, that he let the rest of the cast down by playing the central figure himself and that he wanted to reshoot whole sections of it but couldn’t afford to because of the price of the sets.

This time about, and I don’t know if this is because I’m watching it in context, I’m in an unusually good mood because Doctor Who is back or if I’ve simply caught up with what it’s trying to achieve now that I’m in my mid-thirties, but I found it really very engaging indeed. It’s not a classic by any means and I do think there are problems with those sets which make the film more claustrophobic than it should, but it’s genuinely funny and charming in places and I gave out an audible giggle at the end. Film critic Mark Kermode has a six laugh test to see if comedies have succeeded and it certainly attracted that from me.

All of which is quite a surprise – I’d expected to go into this with the same tone as I did for Company Man – cruel and unusual and unusually cruel. The key to the film’s success is the central relationship between Woody, who is really starting to look his age but in fact hasn’t lost much of his timing, and Helen Hunt who I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for and has the capacity to make even a dud like What Women Want (shivers) half-watchable. Their dialogue crackles with the screwball comedies of the 1930s (rightly given the setting) and though not all the jokes stick ("A lot of women have passed through this apartment. I can't say they were all winners, but...") there are certainly more hits than most comedies.

The story is the stuff of old Hollywood noir thrillers, Allen works in an insurance assessors office which investigates stolen property and are called in to look at the work of a jewel thief. Hunt is an efficiency guru who’s been called in to see if his activities could be farmed out to alternative agencies. The twist and the element of comedy is introduced by the world of magic and hypnotism, a subject which recurs throughout Woody’s career from Radio Days through Oedipus Wrecks, Shadows and Fog and much later Scoop and which leads to Allen becoming the prime suspect of his own case.

There seemed to be three main criticisms of the film on release.

(1) That it’s not as original as some of Woody’s earlier works – and that’s true though to an extent he’s working within a particular genre and genre work by its nature is never original.

(b) That it’s not as thematically complex, though it’s clear that he’s making a featherweight comedy, and is perhaps conscious of not trying to ladle in the morality that ruined Small Time Crooks.

(iii) That he’s simply too old to be seen chasing after all of these young actresses particularly Charlize Theron, who’s young enough to be his grand daughter, that there’s something creepy about him writing a script in which she throws herself at him. Well, apart from the fact he comes across as complete jerk for much the time, he’s clearly playing below his age.

Having enjoyed Jade Scorpion, I now have higher hopes for Hollywood Ending. Perhaps it isn't the dud that I remember.

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