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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (review)

Men on the Edge

All writers — all artists — pour themselves into their work. They have to, if it’s going to be any good. Whether very personal projects — the ones that an artist really opens a vein for — resonate with audiences depends, sometimes, on whether we feel any kind of simpatico with the artist and what he’s revealing, or whether the work demonstrates any indication of self-reflection on the artist’s part. There has to be a point in baring one soul’s, one’s secret fantasies, to the world, after all.
What Woody’s willy wants
There’s not much point to be found in the new Woody Allen wet dream– er, film, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Sure, it’s obvious that Allen is making us privy to some of his deepest fantasies here, but why? Does anyone really need to know that he likes imagining that beautiful young women are irresistibly attracted to him? Hadn’t we already guessed that? And is there anything even original about such delirium?

Allen (who wrote and directed, of course) stars as CW Briggs, a hotshot insurance investigator in 1940 New York. That’s supposed to be the first joke, I guess, that a “slimy little weasel” like Briggs would be a hotshot anything. If it’s meant to be a joke, though, that all the pretty young secretaries in tight sweaters find this shriveled prune of a man unbearably appealing, there’s not much evidence of it. He hits on them shamelessly, and they love him for it. Gross. And naturally, the one woman in the office — efficiency expert and career woman Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt: Cast Away, Pay It Forward) — who sees him for what he is and lets him know that she is not the least bit interested in his bullshit is there to be insulted: her looks, her brains, her personality, all are fodder for Briggs’ — and Allen’s — misogynistic attempts at humor. “You’re right to be threatened by me,” she tells him, pegging the “frail masculinity” at the root of his personality. But never fear: Allen will, in the end, humiliate the character of Fitz, the only woman seemingly immune to his mysterious attractions, in the most perverse way he could.

All this is backdrop for a crime caper that thinks it’s clever but is too forced to really work. Out for an evening after work, a gang from Briggs’ insurance company witnesses a display of hypnotism by mesmerist Voltan (David Ogden Stiers: Atlantis: The Lost Empire), who implants in Fitz and Briggs — his volunteers from the audience — post-hypnotic commands that allow him to command them to use their insider knowledge to pull off seemingly perfect heists of jewelry from their clients’ homes. Bear in mind that Fitz was dragged along on the outing at the last moment, and it was Briggs’ pals who forced him up on stage. So there’s no way that Voltan could have planned his criminal scheme in advance, and it seems awfully convoluted for a spur-of-the-moment thing.

But wait! None of that really matters, either, because it’s just another excuse for Allen to get a gorgeous woman young enough to be his granddaughter to fall madly into bed with him. Laura Kensington (Charlize Theron: 15 Minutes, Sweet November), bad-girl daughter of one of the hoity-toity heist victims, is so strangely drawn to the 185-year-old Briggs the minute she lays eyes on him that she literally cannot wait to rip his clothes off. This was pretty much the point at which I began to feel the desperate need for a shower.

Male screenwriters do this all the time, of course, create film heroes who are their alter egos, who get the girl and solve the case and walk off into the sunset to live happily ever after. But they idealize themselves, make up for their real or perceived faults by creating leading men who are smarter, cooler, and better looking than they are in real life. Allen seems to have done exactly the opposite here: He may be a shriveled prune of a 185-year-old man in real life, but he at least has the fame, money, and talent that lots of women are drawn to. But The Curse of the Jade Scorpion seems to be little more than him trying to work out whether all those women would still find him attractive without fame, money, talent, or indeed any discernible appealing factor whatsoever. And he concludes that, Yeah, he’s a stud no matter how you cut it.

I never needed to know that about him.

Closing a book
Is Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back just as self-indulgent as The Curse of the Jade Scorpion? It sure is, but Kevin Smith knows it is — the same cannot be said of Woody Allen’s movie. Even better, Smith’s alter egos here — Smith spreads his own personality around to many of the male characters — do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: losers.

There’s a good dollop of soul-searching self-awareness at work in Jay and Silent Bob, under all the, as the MPAA puts it, “nonstop crude and sexual humor, pervasive strong language, and drug content.” This boisterous and frequently laugh-out-loud comedy isn’t just a larkish retrospective of Smith’s ViewAskew universe of characters — Jay and Bob, Holden and Banky, Dante, Alyssa — it’s a romp through Smith’s psyche. The ultimate fanboy, the fanboy who made good, is taking one last trip through the profound silliness that got him where he is today before leaving the fannish stuff behind for good. (Even if you didn’t know that Smith says his next film will be a serious one about fatherhood, you might guess something similar from the fact that his own baby appears in the film as Baby Bob.)

The form that romp takes isn’t entirely a successful one. Moving Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) from the Greek chorus to center stage doesn’t quite work, as you’d expect — they’re too one-dimensional to fill leading-character shoes. As a result, perhaps, their saga — as they journey from Red Bank, New Jersey, to Hollywood in order to halt production of a movie based on the Bluntman and Chronic comic-book characters, who are based on Jay and Bob — takes too many detours and goes down too many dead-end back alleys to be enjoyable on a purely story level.

But any objection anyone could possibly raise about the film Smith has dealt with within the film itself, taking pointed barbs at himself, his friends, his characters, his studio, his films, and his fans. With digs at Miramax, Internet buzz, comic-book movies, and movie-star egos, and constant overt and covert bashes at the intelligence of Jay and Bob, it’s impossible to imagine how anyone could come away from this film taking any of it to heart.

The only thing that’s worth taking seriously here is Smith’s good-natured exuberance. His Jay and Bob are idiots, true, but sweet ones, underneath their stoner exteriors. How can anyone truly dismiss Jay entirely when he can reference Winnie the Pooh, and so appropriately? And how can anyone dismiss Smith when his films — especially this one — are filled with a simple, infectious joy of movies? This is a man who loves film — from Star Wars to The Fugitive and everything in between — and he clearly loves getting to play with all the things he loves in his own films. (He manages a better homage to Planet of the Apes in about 30 seconds of film here than Tim Burton managed in 2 hours.)

Is there a generational dynamic at work here, beneath why I hated Jade Scorpion and loved Jay and Silent Bob? Probably. Smith and I have a lot more in common than Woody Allen and I do, and I’m far more in tune with Smith’s mindset than Allen’s. While Allen seems fed up with adulthood and appears to want to revert to adolescence, Smith is closing the book on an extended childhood, ready to move on to adult concerns. Sounds like about where I am, too.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for some sexual content
official site | IMDB

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated R for nonstop crude and sexual humor, pervasive strong language, and drug content
official site | IMDB



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