Radio days

Once again, Woody tunes in to a distant wavelength.


written and directed by Woody Allen with Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Charlize Theron, and David Ogden Stiers opens Aug. 24 at Guild 45, Meridian, Oak Tree, and others

THOUGH HIS CAREER has far eclipsed that of his comic predecessor, Woody Allen—ever the historicist—has always been frank in his admiration for Bob Hope. A coward, a letch, and a nebbish long before Allen updated that persona with Freud, sex, and self-loathing, Hope particularly excelled in a series of light crime comedies typified by My Favorite Brunette (1947). There, and in other such second-tier formula flicks, he deployed his brash, bungling stock character in worlds of intrigue populated by creepy villains and dangerous dames. The redoubtable gag, which eventually grew tired, was that Hope was always emphatically In Over His Head, dog-paddling with the sharks, clowning to mask his fear.

Allen's affection for such comedic chestnuts is evident throughout the genial but lackluster Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which fits into his subspecialty of throwaway comedies somewhere between 1993's Manhattan Murder Mystery (slight but amusing) and last year's Small Time Crooks (the worst film of his career).

Why the huge falloff in quality from 1999's Sweet and Lowdown? It comes down to this: However gifted as a writer and director, Woody Allen is no longer welcome before the lens in more than supporting roles. He carries Scorpion on his puny shoulders and staggers under the weight. Here he plays a blustering, traditionalist insurance investigator, C.W. Briggs, at an agency whose owner (Dan Aykroyd) favors both the modern methods and personal affections of conflicted Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). The retro names indicate Scorpion's thoroughly period look and setting. At any moment during the film, you expect Bing Crosby to swing through a door for a quick cameo quip—and with CGI technology, why not?

C.W. and Betty Ann are naturally meant to be together, despite the bickering vitriol they sling at each other. The constant insults and put-down humor—how '40s!--worked for Hope then, but the shtick grows tiresome now. And while we can accept Hope smooching with, say, Dorothy Lamour, Scorpion most damningly fails as a movie in this regard: We don't want to see Helen Hunt kissing Woody Allen (eeew!) any more than we want to see her mashing with Aykroyd (double eeew!).

IF YOU CAN'T root for the couple, what's left? Low-key laughs rise up when C.W. is put into a slack-jawed trance by the hypnotist-jewel thief Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), but that's mainly physical comedy; otherwise Scorpion putters along with tepid gag writing. "Private eyes are romantic," laments C.W. "I'm just grubby." Scorpion's sclerotic pulse gets a slight boost from Charlize Theron portraying a Veronica Lake-style vamp, then flatlines between her distant, too-brief appearances. Even then, however, the lame double entendres work no better than C.W. and Betty Ann's tedious banter.

Played out almost entirely in a world of gorgeously lit interiors (thanks to Zhao Fei, Allen's preferred cinematographer since Sweet and Lowdown), Scorpion evokes a long-lost New York where men wear hats, broads talk tough, and Duke Ellington never goes out of style. It's a nostalgia piece into which it's hard not to read Allen's own discomfort with modernity, given the constant discourse on old-fashioned intuition (C.W.) versus new-fangled reason (Betty Ann). "You're a dinosaur," she snarls, and you sense that Allen ruefully agrees. (By comparison, think what a fresh spin the Coen brothers give their winking period parodies.)

In a movie suffering from repetitive exposition—of events just seen!--and the world's dullest safe job, one's initial disappointment is partially offset by a half- decent second act. C.W. comes under suspicion for a series of thefts, and Allen is funnier when panicked and put-upon. The writer-director makes no effort to disguise the contrivances of his ragged plot (again a nod to Hope-style comedies), but that can't excuse a botched final act. (If you're going to pull a gun—use it!) Ultimately, despite Voltan's efforts, we can't be hypnotized to laugh.

Asks C.W., "If something is not broken, I say, 'Why fix it?'" With Scorpion, it is, and it needs to be.

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