Woody Allen is in a matinee mood for “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” a modest tribute to both the mystery programmers that once preceded the main attraction on the double bill, and the spirit of his true movie hero, Humphrey Bogart. Certainly not a piffle, nor an impressive departure into a new filmmaking realm, Allen’s second film in a row about crooks ranks in the middle range of his work. It’s also a return to his favorite era, a pre-World War II past when you could turn on a radio and hear Harry James, Glenn Miller or Duke Ellington, when office meetings took place in smoky bars and — most crucially here — when hypnotism and mesmerism were all the rage. Moving along at an entertaining clip with an uncommon degree of plot development, but without the kind of moments to stir up discussion in summer’s Dog Days, “Scorpion” should have a theatrical run in line with Allen’s typically calm B.O. performance.
The large bold numbers, “1940” cover the screen after opening credits, removing any doubt where we are, in the final innocence of the Depression when powerful women in business like Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt) were quite the anomaly. The personalities of Hitler and Mussolini come to the mind of CW Briggs (Allen) when he thinks of Betty Ann, since she wants to, so to speak, make the trains run on time at Northcoast Insurance, where CW has worked as an investigator for 20 years. She’s a woman of the new modern era, streamlining Northcoast’s bustling offices for maximum efficiency. He, on the other hand, does his gumshoe work by gathering undercover tips from various street bums, when he isn’t leering at the secretaries or placing bets on the Giants.
Since Betty Ann wouldn’t know the word sexist, she likens CW to various lower and extinct members of the animal kingdom, from dinosaurs to weasels to worms. But, for all his faults and insecurities, at least CW isn’t carrying on an office affair with a married employee, like Betty Ann is with Northcoast topper Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd).
So when the office gang goes out on the town for co-worker George’s (Wallace Shawn) birthday, it’s their gag to get CW and Betty Ann up on stage with hypnotist Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), who promptly lulls them into a marital romance with a swinging Chinese jade pendant and the magic Bogey-era words “Madagascar” and “Constantinople.” Later that night, Voltan phones CW at home, and, with the same magic words, orders him to rob jewels from the Kensington estate, whose security measures were set up under Northcoast’s purview.
There isn’t a moment here that lapses out of period, not even during any of CW’s verbal battles with Betty Ann (made wearisome, however, with repeated patterns of insult) — it’s a sign of Allen’s enormous affection for Jazz Era Gotham, which is depicted by helmer’s longest continuing collaborator, Santo Loquasto, in burnished interiors accented with wood, brass and light wallpaper, with few of the exterior flourishes of a “Radio Days.”
The re-creation extends beyond the furnishings and Suzanne McCabe’s attractive costuming to pic’s ostensible mystery woman, Laura Kensington (Charlize Theron), who appears to be Veronica Lake’s twin. Theron’s Laura whips her blonde mane around like a weapon, but this is a story without the expected femme fatale. Laura is here, rather unimaginatively, as a mere plot device, first to get CW confused about where he’s been and what ladies he’s been seeing late at night, and later, to help bust him out of a police station after he’s arrested for not one, but two thefts of Kensington jewels.
CW, like Bogart always did, has other private eyes to deal with, such as the Coopersmith brothers (Michael Mulheren and Peter Linari) whom Magruder has enjoined to help crack the case. But since their work points the finger at CW himself, he’s in the jam of his life and forced to hide at Betty Ann’s.
Allen’s story rarely goes below surface events or even — despite the many tussles between CW and Betty Ann — characters, so that a charming turn at the end feels like no more than a sweet, passing touch. Little remains after “Jade Scorpion” is over other than a hazy nostalgic sense for a time that most viewers never knew and that Allen himself was barely old enough to remember.
In the largest role he’s written for himself since at least “Mighty Aphrodite,” Allen is unafraid of appearing nearly as wormy as CW is labeled and a stuttering fool in the face of women he can’t handle. Rather than pushing the pose, Allen carves a performance that comments on Bogart (but shorn of narration), a contrasting variation on his Bogey-obsessed character in “Play It Again, Sam.”
Hunt’s Betty Ann is pic’s most original creation, not quite as cold as CW would deem her and with enough vulnerability under the undefined feminism to collapse under the heat of passion.
Aykroyd rigorously sticks to his assignment as the serious company man and guilt-ridden cheating husband, without one joke slipping through his lips. Making a fine, ominous entrance but with little to do after that, Theron provides sultry atmospherics, as does a fine supporting cast.
Offices have rarely looked warmer, as framed in Zhao Fei’s golden-hued lensing, and the jazz soundtrack includes not only the obligatory Big Band sound, but some piano care of Earl “Fatha” Hines.