The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)


Woody Allen plays detective CW in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.  He’s an excellent detective, having just solved a difficult case, and he remarks to a friend that he’d hate to have himself investigating himself, this after his friend remarks that it takes a thief to catch a  thief.  And that ends up being the plot of the movie.  CW is hypnotized at a dinner with coworkers celebrating the recent solved case, and later the magician calls him, using the trigger word, and then he has CW steal a bunch of jewels.

CW remembers nothing when he wakes up the next morning, and he’s put on the case when he hears about it.  Of course, this case befuddles him, and he believes all the clues point to it being an inside job.  This leads him to suspect Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), who is a coworker who cannot stand CW.  Well their hate for each other is mutual.  Also, I should mention that Betty Ann was hypnotized alongside CW.

Betty Ann has her own thing going on in the story.  She’s having an affair with CW’s boss, Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd), and one night CW catches her in the office looking nervous.  Not aware of the affair, he later takes this to mean she must have been hiding something about the jewel robbery.

CW makes a copy of her apartment key and begins to snoop around.  Then Betty Ann and Christ return home, and Chris breaks up with her.  Full of despair, Betty Ann prepares to throw herself out the window, but that’s when CW reveals himself and pulls her back.

Getting beyond the initial shock and fury of having CW snooping around in her apartment, this moment makes her think better of CW.  When the clues begin pointing towards CW, she remains steadfast, believing in his innocence.  Ultimately, however, she finds the jewels in his apartment, and CW is finally arrested.

Through the help of Charlize Theron (she’s also in this movie), CW escapes and flees to Betty Ann’s apartment for help.  She can’t find it in herself to turn him in.  That night the magician calls Betty Ann (since he believes CW’s in prison), and he hypnotizes her into committing another robbery.

The next day, after CW observes her weird behavior, he becomes convinced that it was Betty Ann along.  Similarly she thinks it was him.  It’s not until CW is bouncing his ideas off a fellow detective that they realize CW and Betty Ann committed the robberies while under a spell.

CW goes to save Betty Ann who’s in the process of giving the jewels to the magician.  He saves her, and the police get the magician.

In the end CW professes his love to Betty Ann who rejects him.  Then he mentions her trigger word, “Madagascar,” and she seems to be under a spell again, in love with him.  I should mention that the initial “spell” cast on CW and Betty Ann was meant to make them briefly fall in love with each other as well as do whatever the magician said.

So they go off together, and that’s when it’s revealed that she isn’t really under a spell, meaning she does have genuine feelings for CW.  They walk down the hall into the sunset.

This is the first Woody Allen film, in chronological order, that feels modern.  It’s set in 1940, so that’s not it, but it looks like a present day film.  Everything is evenly lit and the quality is sharp.  That’s a bit of an aside, just something I noticed.  This was made in 2001, after all.

It’s a pretty silly story, but I like the premise: a guy must investigate himself without realizing it.  It’s a neat script, with a tidy ending.  Something like this really contrasts with his previous film, Small Time Crooks.  In this film, all the puzzle pieces are set up in the beginning and they pay off at the end, like Allen followed a clean structure.  In something like Small Time Crooks, while still structured, it feels more like things just happen, and the story goes from beat to beat as it wishes.

Here it felt like everything was inevitable.  It was inevitable that the magician would get caught, that CW and Betty Ann’s hate would pivot to love, that CW’s gambling habits would be pointed to as a reason to why he stole the jewels, etc.  Everything that was established in the first act, was necessary for everything in the second act, and while that might seem obvious, it’s not always the case in Allen’s films.

For example, in Sweet and Lowdown, the story just diverts to wherever it wants to.  The only through line in that film was Emmett’s search for himself (generally speaking), and it ended with him realizing he’s lost Hattie.  As long as Allen showed that through line, he could go wherever he wanted.  In The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, the whole story is a pyramid, and every plot point is necessary for the film to reach it’s ending.  For example, if you take out the scene in which CW nearly sleeps with Charlize Theron’s character, then the scene in which CW escapes from prison wouldn’t happen and thus you have another road block.

Again, that might seem kind of obvious, but it’s not something inherent in Woody Allen’s films.  He occasionally has films that are as carefully plotted as this one (Manhattan Murder Mystery comes close, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy to an extent), but this feels like the most plotted.

I don’t know what that means.  Nothing, it means nothing.  It’s hard to analyze Allen’s films, at least some of them.  He bounces around between various types of movies, often returning to his favorite types of films.  Sometimes he really deviates and makes Interiors or September or even Another Woman, but most of the times his films feel predictable.  That doesn’t mean they are, but you know what you’re getting.  It’s usually a relationship comedy, and this is exactly that.

When you look at the premise (guy investigates himself), it would seem to be a drama, but it’s very much a comedy, and I realize that all that comedy comes from Allen doing his thing, riffing and bantering.  I read that he originally wanted someone else for the role of CW but his options fell through, and he had to act the role himself.

The age difference was drastic and briefly mentioned, and it made the whole thing a little unbelievable.  I think that contributed to the comedy.  If Tom Hanks played CW, the end wouldn’t be so unbelievable, and the whole story might be more of a melodrama.


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