It's about time Woody Allen made a real screwball comedy. He's always shown a fondness for the "golden age" of Hollywood, and his funniest movies strike a balance between cynicism and sentimentality that would make Preston Sturges proud. With "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," Allen comes very close to capturing the spirit of a classic madcap romance, while putting his own unmistakable stamp on the proceedings.
Allen plays C.W. Briggs, an insurance investigator in 1940 New York who thinks far too highly of himself. Despite being well into middle age and not at all attractive, he believes he's a ladies' man, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the women he beds don't exactly have discriminating tastes.
He's good at his job, but his reliance on instinct and street contacts puts him at odds with Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), a pushy efficiency expert who has been hired to streamline the office, and who seems immune to C.W.'s supposed charms. The two of them immediately loathe each other, but at a company party, an unscrupulous hypnotist (David Ogden Stiers) puts them under his control. His scam is to have them commit a string of robberies when a certain code word is uttered, but there's an unfortunate (and apparently unintended) side effect the code also makes them think they're madly in love.
One of the film's central jokes is that hypnosis strips away people's defenses and makes them act the way they really want, which not only means that C.W. and Betty are secretly attracted to each other, but that they are both capable of being sneaky and dishonest. Of course, they can't see these qualities in themselves, despite the fact that C.W. casually snoops around in his nemesis' personal effects (including breaking into her apartment) and Betty is carrying on a torrid affair with her married boss (Dan Aykroyd).
Giving both characters such unlikable surface qualities is a shrewd move on Allen's part because it makes their gradual softening all the more entertaining to watch.
They've got huge chips on their shoulders and can be downright mean (the insults they exchange are cruel, not cute). They're also putting on acts unlike the trademark neurotics of Allen's other films, these people are desperately trying NOT to reveal their true feelings, preferring to hide their insecurities under layers of bravado. This gives the characters a depth that's rare in films of this type, allowing the actors to give performances that go beyond merely funny. Allen, in particular, does some of his best, most energetic work in years, letting C.W.'s sleazy facade crumble ever so slightly as his feelings for Betty move out of his subconscious.
His writing is also in good form. This may not be "Annie Hall"-level material, but it's witty and lightning-fast, paying appropriate homage to the too-snappy repartee of its screwball forbears. As a director, Allen lets his pacing go off track at times, especially during scenes when it looks like everyone is haphazardly improvising their way through, stepping on each other's dialogue and threatening to bump into the furniture. There aren't many of these moments, but the ones that do appear are cringe-inducing.
Allen and Hunt are the ultimate odd couple, and their lack of romantic chemistry actually works in the movie's favor. It isn't obvious from the beginning that these people belong together, and as a result, they are forced to earn the audience's belief in the story.
It's not an easy leap to make, and not everyone will get there, but Allen has provided a fresh, light-hearted take on a genre that too few directors have understood in the past 60 years.