In ”His Girl Friday,” Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell turn their flirtation into high-speed spitball comedy; the more they fight, the more we know that they’re smitten. Woody Allen’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is a boutique trifle set in 1940, the year that ”His Girl Friday” came out, but when Allen and his costar, Helen Hunt, engage in their version of knife-tongued competitive warfare, all we see is two characters who look as if they hate each other. Allen’s CW is a hard-boiled New York insurance investigator, and Hunt is Betty Ann, a beautiful efficiency expert. She gazes at her new underling and sees a sleazy, pushy, resentful middle-aged loser, and the perversity of the movie is that nothing in Allen’s script or performance leads us to think any different.
A would-be whimsical caper that fuses hypnosis, thievery, and romance, ”The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” wears its confectionary ”smallness” on its lapel, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a fun light snack; it’s more like a cupcake that never rises. Out on the town for a coworker’s birthday, CW and Betty are put into a trance by Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), a sinister showbiz mesmerist who gets them to confess (or does he plant the idea?) that they’re deeply in love. Before long, he’s hypnotizing CW over the telephone and ordering him to commit jewel heists, which CW then has to investigate, with no awareness that he’s responsible for the crimes. (The jaunty New Orleans rag ”In a Persian Market” that plays over the robberies is the best thing in the film.)
It’s a wisp of a clever idea, but Allen, coming off the intricate and funny ”Small Time Crooks,” has regressed to the leaden high jinks mode of ”Broadway Danny Rose” and ”Manhattan Murder Mystery.” It’s not just his prankish wry touch that’s gone soft; he seems fundamentally deluded about his image as well. I don’t want to sound like I’m jumping on the bandwagon of sexual correctness by claiming that Allen is too old and wizened to be playing a shlub who can still win Helen Hunt’s heart, but here goes: At 65, Allen is too old and wizened to be playing a shlub who can still win Helen Hunt’s heart. The fact that it takes a hypnotist to bring these two together would seem to be Allen’s token acknowledgment of the fanciful incongruity of the relationship, but the fairy-tale chemistry in ”Jade Scorpion” is so contrived that it’s nearly abstract.
As a plot device, hypnosis has to rank right down there with amnesia-inducing conks on the head: You may instantly want to lose all memory of how little fun you’re having. Through it all, CW is meant to be a scruffy charmer. He hooks up with a statuesque party girl (Charlize Theron) in Veronica Lake hair, and she practically tries to wrestle him into bed. More than unseemly, it feels wrong; the entire machinery of the movie seems to be rotating around Woody Allen’s vanity. He remains a canny (if, in this case, hollow) film craftsman, but by now we know him far too well to be asked to find him adorable.