Dir: Woody Allen. US. 2001. 103 min.

Far superior to hisprevious comic crime capers (Manhattan Murder Mystery and last year's Small Time Crooks), Woody Allen's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is an entertaining period piece, poking fun at the hypnosis craze that mesmerized people of the Jazz Era and continues to captivate people today. Sharply written, even by Allen's high standards, with some marvelously delivered punch lines, Curse is a charming little romantic comedy that fortuitously teams Allen, as a crackerjack insurance investigator, withHelen Hunt (a new face in the Allen's repertory troupe), as a tough efficiency expert in his office. Artistically speaking, the new film is as accomplished as Sweet And Lowdown, which was a huge flop, and the Oscar-winning Bullets Over Broadway, which was a moderate success. Benefiting from DreamWorks' more aggressive and shrewd marketing in the US, which helped SmallTime Crooks considerably in the same market, Curse may remove the domestic box office curse that has plagued most of Allen's movies ofthe 1990s.

As reliable as a Swiss clock, Allen is the only American director who is able to make one movie per year, despite personal scandals, passing fashions, and advancing age. Arecurring criticism of Allen's work is that it seldom ventures very far fromthe manners and concerns of the neurotic, well-to-do East Side New Yorkers.Indeed, though set in 1940, Curseis a quintessentially New York Allen picture, but one that's at least one ortwo notches above his other pictures.

Working with a modest budget(about $16m), Allen has thriftily shot his period comedy on slightlyre-decorated locations all over Manhattan. Though always complaining about thesmall scale of his films, low budgets have given Allen what most directorsdesire but lack: artistic freedom in subject matter and casting -- and finalcut.

The new movie is a usefulreminder of how crucial is the on-screen presence of Allen (absent from most ofhis 1990s oeuvre) to the overall impact of his movies. Here, Allen cast himselfas CW Briggs, New York's top insurance investigator, or so he keeps telling hiscolleagues. Briggs prides himself on being able to crack any insurance caper bygetting straight into the thief's mind.But now, due to the hypnotic powers of the Jade Scorpion, it seems as if the thief's mind has got intoBriggs. Under the influence, Briggs is commanded by the turban-wearing Voltan(Stiers) to steal some precious jewels, and committing the crime rathercarelessly, he deems himself prime suspect.

Hunt plays Betty AnnFitzgerald, the new efficiency expert, hired to modernize the office where thecrack investigator has ruled the roost for years. To say that there's immediateconflict between Betty and Briggs is an understatement, though viewers knowit's the kind of love/hate that hides and easily transforms into passionatelove. Betty is pulled into the scheme when she, too, falls under the spell ofthe exotic hypnotist. At the very mentioning of some key words, she transformsfrom a cold-hearted specialist to a softer, sexually passionate woman.

Like most of Allen's costumepictures, Curse is a comedy withcontemporary issues, many of which have appeared in his previous efforts,specifically the notion of hidden or denied desires, be they romantic, sexual,or even legal (here, the urge to commit crime and violate the law), that arebrought to the surface with extra-help by hypnosis. Allen's prevalent Freudianconcerns, and his own longtime psychoanalysis, have been reflected in severalpictures. But, in addition, Curseseems also to have found an amusing take on the gap between surface appearancesand truer biological instincts, and how this gap affected differentially malesand females in American society of yesteryear. Indeed, in due course, all theplayers let their protective outer masks slip, exposing their dormant andlatent inner selves.

One of the pleasures offeredby Curse is observing how Allenemploys archetypal movie characters of the 1940s, finding a shrewd, current wayto modernize them. Hence, Jill (Berkeley) is a classic 40s type, "the sexysecretary," who flirts with men at the office, but goes home at nightalone. The alluringly blond Laura (Theron), who seems to have been modeled onLauren Bacall, is a 40s femme fatale. Mr. Magruder (Aykroyd) is Briggs' gruffboss, who wants to avoid paying when the titular valuable goes missing; amarried man, he conducts an illicit affair with Betty.

At the centre is Betty, anattractive yet tough and powerful femme, embodying the career woman typeusually played in the 40s by Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and RosalindRussell. Like all the characters, she's duplicitous too: Despite her outwardlysteely demeanor, Fitz, as Betty is often called, is involved in adultery withher boss that turns her into a vulnerable, suicidal victim.

Re-uniting the samebehind-the-scenes creative force responsible for Small Time Crooks, the film benefits from he excellent support ofChinese cinematographer Zhao Fei, Allen's regular production designer SantoLoquasto, and authentic costumes by Suzanne McCabe, who also designed the greatwardrobe for Bullets Over Broadway.In what's a conscious homage to Vincente Minnelli, the interior design ofAllen' and Hunt's apartments recall those of Gregory Peck's and Lauren Bacall'sin Designing Woman, contrastingthe male's dumpy Upper West Side habitat with the female's stylish Park Avenueresidence.

Flaunting her incrediblysexy figure, Hunt wears the period stuff (the hose, the heels, the tightskirts, the bright lipstick) with great panache, using her apparel the way anacrobat uses his stunts, as one element contributing to what's the film's mostimpressive and most crucial performance.

Ultimately, hypnosis may beno more than a conceit, but it's a good, serviceable conceit for this kind ofmaterial. Artistically speaking, Curse is just as accomplished as Bullets Over Broadway, but unlike that film, which had a distant, detachedfeel to it, the new comedy has a warmer, brighter, and snappier texture. Norecent Allen movie has been so concerned with pleasing and entertaining theaudience as Curse, which achievesits goals without ever compromising Allen's vision. For that, and otherrewards, viewers should be grateful.