The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

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Bob Smithouser

Movie Review

The action in Woody Allen’s latest period comedy, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, takes place when big band ruled the airwaves, gumshoes got their tips on the street, and the New York Giants still played baseball. It’s glorious 1940. And Allen makes sure everyone and everything gets bathed in warm earth tones. At the center of the story is aging New York City insurance investigator CW Briggs, a whiny, paranoid, gambling, skirt-chaser who would be intolerable if not for the fact that he’s good at what he does. Most of his office mates envy his incomparable gut instinct. But the company’s new efficiency expert—icy and logical Betty Ann Fitzgerald—threatens CW’s old-school record-keeping and prehistoric womanizing. She’s a career-minded feminist among “dames.” The pair spend most of the movie at each other’s throats, exacerbating a love-hate relationship that’s far more hate than love.

That’s not to say Betty Ann is entirely without romantic passion. She looks forward to the day when her boss, Chris Magruder, will finally leave his wife and run off with her. Their after-hours rendezvous and codified sweet nothings are growing tiresome. To an efficiency expert, such sneaking around is anything but efficient, especially once the mousy CW learns their secret.

One evening at a colleague’s birthday party, CW and Betty Ann volunteer to be hypnotized as part of a professional magic act. Little do they know that Voltan the Great has a few other tricks up his sleeve. He’s a cagey jewel thief. CW begins receiving late-night phone calls that put him back into a trance. Voltan instructs him to rob very wealthy people whose complex security systems were installed by CW and his firm. Of course, CW always awakens with no memory of the heists, and passionately pursues justice. But what happens when all of his sleuthing points back to him … or Betty Ann?

positive elements: When CW hits on a pretty young lady from the office by offering to rub down her chest, she retorts, “Anybody [who] rubs my chest down better bring a ring” (male coworkers who hear the comeback praise her commitment to save intimacy for marriage). The typically antagonistic CW and Betty Ann take pity on one another on separate occasions: He saves his drunk, distraught colleague from committing suicide and watches over her during the night. Later, she shows him generous amounts of compassion, wanting to believe that he’s really innocent.

spiritual content: In defense of his womanizing, CW says, “That’s how God created us. Who am I to quibble with his concept.”

sexual content: Frequent sexual dialogue and innuendo—mostly in the form of come-ons and snide remarks—are Jade Scorpion’s real curse. A lot of the offending content comes from CW, a dirty old man who leers at young women, owns nudie playing cards and is always ready for a fling. Meanwhile, Betty Ann and Magruder carry on an illicit affair (we’re supposed to root for their happiness). Also suffering from an overactive libido and suppressed morals is a wild rich girl named Laura Kensington who bares herself to CW (not the cameras). This heavy emphasis on sexuality should come as no surprise in a Woody Allen film. Over the years, much of Allen’s writing has involved sexual situations and suggestive humor. It’s not as bold or visually explicit in Scorpion as in some of his other movies, but the fascination continues. What’s especially disconcerting here is how the 65-year-old Allen stammers excitedly about sleeping with women one-third his age. Remember, this is the filmmaker who married a woman 35 years younger than he and is the adopted daughter of a former lover. CW’s soulless cradle-robbing, in conjunction with Allen’s real-life behavior, is more than just inappropriate; it’s creepy.

violent content: A few violent threats are made for comic effect. One character pulls a gun on another.

crude or profane language: There are a dozen profanities, most in the form of inappropriate uses of God’s name. There are no s-words or f-words (encouraging for a PG-13), but there’s an awful lot of sexual innuendo.

drug and alcohol content: Near-constant use of alcohol and cigarettes by most of the players. Drinks (beer, tequila, whiskey, etc.) and smokes appear as props on many occasions. Betty Ann gets plastered trying to drown her sorrows over a relationship. Laura Kensington offers CW opium and 120-proof vodka.

other negative elements: CW has a reputation for wagering heavily on baseball games and horse races. When CW’s colleagues think he’s a notorious jewel thief, they gush over his moxie more than they once respected him for his integrity (“CW deserves some credit. He turned out to be a pretty gutsy guy”). A scene in which suicidal Betty Ann considers jumping out of a window doesn’t advocate self-destructive behavior, but it may be unsettling to some viewers. [Spoiler Warning] In the end, Magruder leaves his wife for Betty Ann, only to have Betty Ann experience a sudden (and really illogical) change of heart in favor of CW. In essence, she leaves an adulterous married cad for a promiscuous single one.

conclusion: This film has visual flair and a few funny bits. Unfortunately, the bickering between Allen and Hunt gets tiresome and, as is the case with so many Woody Allen movies, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion stumbles because too much of its witty repartee aims below the belt. Still more evidence of its creator’s erotic idolatry. To be fair, this material isn’t as brazen as Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, but viewers could do without the heavy dose of sexual themes and innuendo, particularly from a man old enough to collect Social Security who chases girls barely old enough to vote. Don’t get stung.

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Bob Smithouser