| Dir: Woody Allen
“It’s such a shame that you’re going to have to wake up from this fabulous illusion. Just once, before the ugly curtain of reality drops on both of us.”
Such is the function and attraction of cinema. Cue the laughably orchestrated indoor fireworks display to illustrate and celebrate the sparkle that it has brought to your life.
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was the first film following the fairly acrimonious split between Allen and his longtime close friend, confident and recent producer, Jean Doumanian. Part of this was related to Woody requesting a larger downside than the low seven figure sum that Sweetland Films, Doumanian and her partner Jacqui Safra’s prodoction studio, could provide (and far more than he was getting 10 years ago with the supposed trade minimum under Orion). The far more significant part, however, was Allen suing the company for defrauding him of $12 million and much publicized trial.
Like he did with Manhattan Murder Mystery following his split and custody trial with Mia Farrow, Woody rebounded and distracted himself with a tonally muddled screwball comedy-mystery-noir-romp from the 1940s. Under a state of hypnosis by a criminal stage magician, C.W. Briggs (Allen) is instructed to orchestrate a strong jewel robberies from New York’s elite. The comedic set up comes from Briggs being the insurance inspector assigned to solve these crimes that he has no recollection of committing.
This was the second of his “amusing ideas” scraped from the back of a dusty drawer and this came in at a total budget of $26 million. What the most expensive Woody Allen film to date led to is, for me, a pleasant and pleasurable farce with a final arc that, against my better judgement, really charmed me. Dramaturgically it’s one of his most solid works of this era – the plot is lively and rolls along at a nice pace with good humour. It outstays its welcome with a dip of energy in the middle, but it’s a fun ride if you invest in this magical space where Woody operates in. Some of his finest work comes in exploring the ecstasy of fantasy to abandon the cruelty of reality: Alice, Everyone Says I Love You, Oedipus Wrecks, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight in Paris and so on. That Woody is escaping his own harsh reality through his work adds an unintentional potency.
It is, however, as rapid in one liners as any other Allen creation, even if the batting average is much lower. Some are definitely home runs: “The place is a mess. If I had known you were coming I’d have had the maid rearrange the dirt.”, “I made a duplicate of your key, which you can have for no extra charge.” Sometimes, the best laughs come from the simplest and most formulaic of set ups:
Betty: “I was aware that you sneaked out to the office mysteriously in the middle of the night and the lobby guard saw you. I know you have Laura Kensington’s stocking and she swears you kicked her our of bed to take care of some sudden business, which your super corroborates. They have a footprint, a matchbook with your fingerprint and still I believed that you didn’t do it. But now the actual stolen property turns up hidden in your bedroom”
C.W.: “So what are you saying, this makes you suspicious of me?”
However, one joke is more memorable than all for the wrong reasons: “My clergyman, who happens to be wanted to pederasty, will vouch for me.” While the many jokes of this nature before the early 90s continue to suggest thinly veiled personality traits, the jokes following the allegations are connotative of pure hubris. Or a complete lack of self-awareness and basic common sense decorum. None of that is why he is so harsh on the box office flop, released by DreamWorks in a staggering 900 screens, that the film became:
“I have great regrets and embarrassment. I feel that maybe – and there are many candidates for this – but it may be the worst film I’ve made. I let down an exceptionally gifted cast. It kills me to have a cast so gifted and not be able to come through for them. … I went wrong in playing the lead. I would have been better off if I had less laughs and has a straighter, tougher leading man…And I felt it as I was getting dailies every day. I didn’t know how to get out of it.”
He’s certainly not far off. Allen, in his mid-60s, does not carry the same affable charm as he did in the similar throwback hardened romantic lead role in Pay it Again, Sam. In fairness, while he didn’t exhaust the casting process, Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson did decline the role. You also can’t fault Charlize Theron’s conviction in playing femme-fetale Laura Kensington (what a lovely homage to Lauren Bacall), but the character leaves a lot to be desired. She is a dated caricature within a caricatured world where women like her are aroused by the advances of the elderly Mr Briggs.
This is light, escapist entertainment – but it also doesn’t challenge you to confront its messages like the films listed prior. Viewing it in the context of 2001, let alone 2016, leaves it feeling awkwardly positioned. Yet some fans can still be intoxicated by the withering fumes of an older artist playing the same predictable cards. Not for much longer, however.
Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.