Curse of Jade Scorpion, The: Woody Allen’s Lame Effort Starring Charlize Theron

Weaker than to his previous comic crime capers (“Manhattan Murder Mystery,” “Small-Time Crooks”), Woody Allen’s Curse of the Jade Scorpion is a lame effort to poke fun at the hypnosis craze that mesmerized people of the Jazz era and continues to captivate people today.

Not as sharply written by Allen’s standards, this is an extremely small romantic comedy teaming Allen, as a crackerjack insurance investigator, with Helen Hunt (a new face in the Allen’s repertory), as a tough efficiency expert in his office. As a period piece, new picture is not as accomplished as “Sweet and Lowdown,” which was a flop, or the Oscar-winning “Bullets Over Broadway,” which was a success.

As reliable as a Swiss clock, Allen is the only American director who’s able to make one movie per year, despite personal scandals, passing fashions, and advancing age. A recurring criticism of Allen’s work is that it seldom ventures very far from the manners and concerns of the neurotic, well-to-do East Side New Yorkers. Indeed, though set in 1940, Curse is a quintessentially New York Allen picture.

Working with a relatively small budget (about $16 million), Allen has thriftily shot his period comedy on slightly redecorated Manhattan locales. Though always complaining about the small scale of his films, low budgets have given Allen what most directors desire: Freedom in subject matter and casting and final cut.

If nothing else, new movie is a reminder of how crucial is the onscreen presence of Allen (absent from most of his 1990s oeuvre) to the overall impact of his movies. Here, Allen cast himself as CW Briggs, New York’s top insurance investigator, or so he keeps telling his colleagues. Briggs prides himself on being able to crack any insurance caper by getting straight into the thief’s mind. But, due to the hypnotic powers of the Jade Scorpion, the thief’s mind seems to have gotten into Briggs. Under the influence, Briggs is commanded by the turban-wearing Voltan (Stiers) to steal some precious jewels. Committing the crime rather carelessly, he makes himself prime suspect.

Hunt plays Betty Ann Fitzgerald, the new efficiency expert, hired to modernize the office where the crack investigator has ruled the roost for years. To say there’s conflict between Betty and Briggs is an understatement, though viewers know it’s the kind of “hate” that hides (and later transforms into) passionate love. Betty is pulled into the scheme when she, too, falls under the spell of the exotic hypnotist. Like Briggs, at the mentioning of key words, she transforms from a cold-hearted specialist to a softer and sexually passionate woman.

Like most of Allen’s costume pictures, “Curse” is a comedy with contempo issues, many of which have appeared in previous efforts, specifically the notion of hidden or denied desires, be they romantic, sexual, or even legal (here, the urge to commit crime and violate the law), brought to the surface with extra-help by hypnosis.

Allen’s Freudian concerns, and his own longtime psychoanalysis, have been reflected in several pictures. “Curse” seems to have a mildly amusing take on the gap between surface appearances and biological instincts, and how this gap affects differentially males and females in American society. In due course, all the players let their protective outer masks slip, exposing latent inner selves.

In “Curse,” Allen employs archetypal movie characters of the 1940s, but can’t find a shrewd or funny way to modernize them. Hence, Jill (Berkeley) is a classic 1940s type, “the sexy secretary,” who flirts with men at the office but goes home at night alone. The alluringly blond Laura (Charlize Theron), perhaps modeled on Lauren Bacall, is the 19440s femme fatale. Mr. Magruder (Dab Aykroyd) is Briggs’ gruff boss, who wants to avoid paying when the titular valuable is missing.

A married man, Magruder has an illicit affair with Betty, the attractive yet tough femme, embodying the career wome played in the 1940s by Crawford, Stanwyck, and Rosalind Russell. Like the other characters, Bette is duplicitous too: Despite outwardly steely demeanor, Fitz, as she’s often called, can turn into a suicidal victim.

Reuniting the creative force responsible for “Small Time Crooks,” the film benefits from the lensing of the Chinese Zhao Fei, Allen’s regular production designer Santo Loquasto, and the costumes by Suzanne McCabe, who also designed the wardrobe for “Bullets Over Broadway.” Paying an homage to Minnelli, the interior design of Allen’ and Hunt’s apartments recall those of Gregory Peck’s and Lauren Bacall’s in “Designing Woman,” contrasting the male’s dumpy Upper West Side habitat with the female’s stylish Park Avenue residence.

Flaunting her sexy figure, Helen Hunt wears the period stuff (the hose, the heels, the tight skirts, the bright lipstick) with panache, using her apparel the way an acrobat uses his stunts, but there is no chemistry between her and Allen.