“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” written by, directed and starring Woody Allen is a joy, a delight, a hoot. It may just be one of his funniest and most mellow films he has turned out in his 32-year career. It’s impossible not to have a great time at your local multiplex.

We all know Woody has a weakness for the ’20s and ’30s. Here “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” couldn’t be a more fitting title for a film set in 1940. In those days, detective novels – a literary genre then at its pinnacle – were being turned out practically by the bushel.

What gives a special turn and sparkle to “The Curse” is how cleverly Woody makes use of how women were viewed in the work place then and now. Just last year, we were seeing Helen Hunt as a tough lady boss competing with Mel Gibson for a top-dog job. (Don’t ask what it was like for Ms. Hunt to go from the arms of Mel Gibson to those of Woody Allen. In any event she is entertaining and just right in both roles.)

What is surprising is to discover Woody acting – actually acting – another role other than that of a neurotic Jewish nebbish. Always funny, always a nebbish, film after film, but somehow a nebbish who always gets the best-looking female in the cast for himself in the end. All right, Helen Hunt and Charlize Theron aren’t exactly dogs, but there’re a lot of downright insulting putdowns delivered by both young women to C.W. Briggs, the crack insurance investigator played by Woody. And Woody gives back as good as he gets.

Charlize Theron does the blonde vamp, a la Veronica Lake, to a T. Looking Woody over scornfully, she muses, “I only go for handsome, strong, well-muscled young men.” Woody retorts, “Well, I could get a couple of pushups in before dinner, I suppose.”

And as C.W. Briggs, Woody shows himself to be smart, street-wise, competent and sharp at all times. He stands up for himself. What with his fedora and long raincoat, at times you feel you’re getting like quick flashes of Alan Ladd in “The Blue Dahlia.” Period perfect. Of course, he’s got a mouth on him that most private investigators only developed in later decades. But still, it’s a real performance he gives here.

The plot is in the title, of course. The office takes one (Wallace Shawn) of the staff out to celebrate his birthday at the Rainbow Room. A magician calls for members of the audience to come forward to be hypnotized as part of the floorshow. C.W. and Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt – who is having an affair with the boss, Dan Akroyd, a married man) wind up on stage. Despite their vigorous protests that they are impervious to being hypnotized, the magician slowly dangling before one, then the other a jade scorpion on a chain has them both under his spell to the hilarity of their office buddies.

The magician has informed C.W. that he will do whatever he is told upon hearing the word “Constantinople” and Fitzgerald, the word, “Madagascar.” Needless to say, a late-night phone call opening with “Constantinople” sets C.W. out on a mission to steal jewelry from a house he recently wired for security. You can see where the story might go from there, but you probably can’t imagine the hilarious twists Woody has set up for us.

Go with the jade scorpion and have one whale of a time – unless, of course, your dish happens to be “American Pie 2.” But there, our tastes part company.

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