Woody Allen has singled out The Curse of the Jade Scorpion as one of his worst films for his failure to find a suitable leading man and having to take over the role himself. He’s only half-right. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is incredibly minor Allen, but it’s far from his worst piece of material.
But he was spot-on about a major failing of the film being stuck with him in the leading role. He originally wanted Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson, either one of them would have brought an extra spark that’s currently missing. Allen also generates a kind of anti-chemistry with Helen Hunt that’s fascinating. We believe them as two people get under each other’s skin, but they don’t come even remotely close to selling the inevitable romance.
Allen is clearly aiming for a combination of His Girl Friday with Double Indemnity here, but he misses that mark. Or, like he was trying to revive The Thin Man franchise, and despite a rapid-fire series of sarcastic digs and colorful dialog he can’t capture the heady fun and sense of play that William Powell and Myrna Loy brought to that material. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion plays out as perfectly fine homage, it’s a pleasing trinket for 90-some minutes, and then it fades from memory.
There’s the premise and setup for a lively screwball comedy, but Jade Scorpion has performance anxiety. It’s mainly traced back to its leading man. There’s a variety of supporting parts that filled in with comedic actors that bring their best to the material, like Wallace Shawn, Dan Aykroyd, and David Ogden Stiers. Charlize Theron gets to play a slinky femme fatale then take the piss out of it in a minor part. Helen Hunt proves surprisingly effective in a role clearly written with a Rosalind Russell type in mind. They just make the failure of Allen to effectively find a leading man all the more glaring.
There’s some chuckles but with a premise this good it’s frustrating to watch the rest of the material just fizzle out. The craft on display cannot be faulted, as the entire movie looks simply gorgeous with period interiors and costumes that sparkle with vintage warmth. Is this the worst film of Allen’s career? Hardly, but it’s clearly somewhere towards the lower end.