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Thieves like us

I have found myself saying this before — in fact, with each of Woody Allen’s last few movies. They are not masterpieces at the level of his earlier run (Annie Hall, Manhattan) or the later blooming (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, Deconstructing Harry). They are small movies, minor pieces, with a fondness for period recreation. He’s not going to stop making them just because he doesn’t have any masterpiece-type ideas on hand. As someone once remarked, Allen is a chain-moviemaker — he lights each new one from the stub of the old one. These are Woody Lights.

But I can always watch a Woody Allen movie, and I even like his bad ones. I don’t mind if he wants to while away his autumnal years playing with comic conceits he perfected decades ago; I like his schtick, and I’m not going to beat him with it. So you have to take what I say about his new film, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, in that light.

It is a spoof of the pulpy old detective stories, set in the Forties, and with all sorts of references to Forties’ movies. Allen himself plays CW Briggs, an insurance investigator who is either a valued veteran of his trade or a washed-out old has-been, depending on how you look at it. Certainly the latter view is taken by Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), the new broom at his company.

She is keen to sweep him away in the interests of modernisation. Thus some tension is set up immediately between the two, and they have some amusing scenes flinging baroque insults at each other.

Then, one evening, both find themselves at an office drinks party at a supper club featuring a hypnotist. And, yes, you can see the pretty conceit coming: CW and Betty Ann are chosen as subjects for the hypnotist’s act. He tells them they are “man and wife”, and, moreover, in case it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, they are deliriously in love with each other.

From then on we’re into a screwball comedy that bounces along happily enough, with various plot-twists involving jewel heists, several bright comic scenes and a climax that pays affectionate homage to the famous fireworks scene in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. The movie also looks good, having been meticulously styled and attractively shot. And the supporting cast, including Dan Aykroyd and Charlize Theron, all slot perfectly into place. For the neat 90 minutes that any Woody Allen movie requires to do its job, I, at least, was entertained without for a moment feeling that it required any effort on my part. And sometimes that’s just what even a hardcore intellectual like me wants.

To be fair, you should perhaps be informed of the objections others had to The Curse of the Jade Scorpion: some critics, perhaps the majority, found it flat and unfunny, one of the dying gasps of Allen’s fading genius. And, yes, it doesn’t exactly reek of freshness. But I really only had one big problem with this little movie, and I think I’ve been in denial about this for a while. Or at least I’ve made excuses for him, on the grounds that it’s a running gag. But now I’m thinking it really is time to get in some new actor to take what one might see as the central Woody Allen role — the kvetching, wisecracking nebbish who still somehow gets the girl. Allen has never been a hunk; but now he looks so old, too.

Maybe we should be laughing when Theron, in full Veronica Lake femme fatale mode, cosies up to Allen’s CW and comes on to him. And it is funny when she purrs that she usually prefers her men more athletic and he offers to do a few push-ups before their next meeting. But the joke, in a way, just highlights the fact that what sexual or romantic chemistry there may be between Allen and Theron (or Allen and Hunt, for that matter), exists on paper only. One does feel the lack of it, and one begins to wonder who Allen could cast in the Woody Allen role in his next movie.

And I think I’ve got it. You know who has a lot of time on his hands, these days? Jerry Seinfeld.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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