Woody Allen's latest fails to cast a spell

Woody Allen has bad guys on his mind these days. His last movie, "Small Time Crooks," presented an amusing array of ditto, and now he's dreamed up another batch in a more exotically titled comedy, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion."

Allen plays C.W. Briggs, the kind of 1940s insurance investigator we used to see in movies like "Double Indemnity" and its melodramatic ilk. He's the one who springs into action when con artists try to scam the company, and he's convinced he's the best in the business, combining a quick-thinking mind with a fast-talking mouth.

Cracking fraud cases isn't the only challenge in town, though. Briggs's employer has hired an efficiency expert who's changing company routines in ways Briggs doesn't admire. Adding insult to injury, the uppity troublemaker is a woman - and this is 1940, when women aren't supposed to boss men around!

And that's only the start of Briggs's problems.

A session with a nightclub hypnotist encumbers his usually agile mind with a posthypnotic suggestion, making him a zombielike slave every time the mesmerist says the magic word.

Soon afterward he slips into a trance and pulls off a burglary, then recovers his senses and tries to solve the case, completely unaware that the crook he's after is himself.

That's only part of the movie's plot - other angles include Briggs's affair with a seductress and a fling between the efficiency expert and her supervisor - but Allen unfolds the tale skillfully enough to keep it clear and uncomplicated.

What he doesn't do is make it funny. Allen has mined rich humor from nostalgic themes in movies like "Radio Days" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo," but this time he doesn't seem to have read his own screenplay before letting the cameras roll. While the story is loaded with promising ideas and potentially amusing jokes, they're worked out so clumsily that most of them fall instantly flat.

Who's to blame for this fiasco? Not the excellent cast - Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Wallace Shawn, Charlize Theron - or fine technicians like cinematographer Zhao Fei, editor Alisa Lepselter, and production designer Santo Loquasto, who have worked successfully with Allen in the past.

That leaves Woody himself to take the rap, assuming that no Hollywood hypnotist ruined it all with a baneful spell. Not since the half-baked "Celebrity" has an Allen movie been so strenuously unfunny. Here's hoping his next picture, already filmed and almost ready for release, puts an end to the jade scorpion's regrettable hex.

Rated PG-13; contains sexual humor.

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