Woody Allen's latest film does involve a curse, but it's less the curse of a scorpion than one of awkward acting and heavy-handed one-liners.
"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" has Allen again doing his typical schtick, this time as C.W. Briggs, an investigator for a New York City insurance company of the 1940s. Most of said schtick involves verbal sparring matches with new hire Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), an efficiency expert who arrives at the company to look into ways to modernize and improve its operations, much to the disapproval of C.W.
Into this rather predictable setting comes Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), a hypnotist who casts a spell on C.W. and Betty Ann at a party by uttering magic words that put them into a trance. By later repeating these words to the two unsuspecting accomplices, he forces them to steal jewels for him. It's a clever plot twist, considering that C.W. becomes the chief investigator on the case.
Sexual tension simmers just beneath the surface of most of the film's scenes, although it's difficult to get aroused by the prospect of the sultry Charlize Theron (who plays a wealthy seductress) bedding down with the aging Allen. The romantic games between C.W. and Betty Ann are more realistic, but realism isn't the brass ring Allen is chasing here -- it's humor.
What he ends up with instead comes across as trite. The script both spoofs and embraces the smooth-talking, cigarette-smoking world of "Double Indemnity," but "Curse" inherits little of that tradition's charm and all of its corn. Allen seems especially uneasy in his role, as if he knows that his intellectual but slightly askew humor isn't working as well as it normally does. And Hunt, despite giving the film's best performance, is too naturalistic to blend with Allen's stand-up routine, or with co-star Dan Aykroyd's dry caricature of a 1940s businessman.
Allen's best films of late are the ones in which he is not the star, including "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Sweet and Lowdown." He's not a bad actor, but his performances often upstage his directing style, which remains one of the most intelligent in Hollywood.
Still, Allen is often the best actor to deliver his own lines. (Two new standouts: "Never bet on a horse that has Parkinson's" and "Germs can't live in your bloodstream -- it's too cold.") It's these witty retorts -- and the story's plot twists -- that give the film its meager energy. But for a movie with such an exotic title and interesting premise, this "Scorpion" is disappointingly lifeless.