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Neurotic funnyman Allen's back, but his "Scorpion" needs more comic sting in its tale.


Once upon a time, a new Woody Allen film was an event to anticipate, a date to mark on your calendar. But more than a decade has come and gone since the filmmaker's last worthy effort. Instead of crafting more groundbreaking dramas or zany comedies, Allen's been spending his time avoiding paparazzi and scandal sheets, fighting ex-girlfriends and collaborators in court, and apparently squandering his once-monumental talent on minor comedies.

"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" falls solidly in the auteur's middle range, offering us few comic high notes but also never falling too flat. Returning to Allen's beloved pre-World War II era, "Scorpion" ends up a modest tribute to both the once-popular radio mystery show as well as to the spirit of Allen's personal movie hero, Humphrey Bogart. However, unlike several other Allen comedies, Bogart is not an actual character here, merely a stylish inspiration.

The large bold numbers "1940" cover the screen after the opening credits, letting us know what we are about to see has nothing to do with our contemporary sensibilities, political correctness or — gasp! — affirmative action. We are entering a time zone when businesswomen like Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt) were a disturbing anomaly.

The personalities of Hitler and Mussolini come to the mind of co-worker C.W. Briggs (Allen), when he thinks of Betty Ann. A 20-year-veteran and his company's crack insurance-fraud investigator, Briggs has no use for Betty Ann or she for him. She's the epitome of efficiency and wants the company to run like clockwork. He's a womanizer who hangs with unsavory lowlifes for tips on his investigations. Well, that is when he's not eyeing the ladies or betting on the Giants.

But Betty Ann isn't as squeaky clean as she seems, and C.W.'s apparent loathing may be hiding truer, deeper feelings.

All of this comes rushing out when the office heads out on the town to celebrate an employee's birthday. Betty Ann and C.W. find themselves onstage with hypnotist Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) who mesmerizes them into professing their undying love for each other. He also leaves behind verbal triggers that turn each into an unknowing thief and accomplice.

Although showing his 60-plus years, Allen carries on with the verve of former tough-talking leading men. And Hunt gives as good as she gets. Think Bogey and Bacall or Tracy and Hepburn if they'd seriously hated each other. When Betty Ann and C.W. get into it, Allen's dialogue is on par with some of his best.

But "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" never lingers too long on any one character or turn of events. Written and directed by Allen, the story rarely ventures below the surface. Despite the many enjoyable tussles between Betty Ann and C.W., the rest of the cast get short shrift. Besides Allen's usual gang of secondary players, "Scorpion" also boasts Charlize Theron as a vampy villainess and Dan Aykroyd as the philandering head of the insurance company.

However, when "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" ends, few of the supposed shenanigans linger. Rather like Allen's nostalgia for the '40s, we leave "Scorpion" vaguely amused but wistfully pining for those funnier, better Allen movies of the past.

Movies are rated out of a possible 5 popcorns.

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