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In his latest comedy, Woody Allen plays a legendary insurance investigator(!) and, as usual, he gets the girl; Captain Corelli's Mandolin is a summer sap opera.

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For more than three decades, Woody Allen has directed movies on the average of about one a year. Even when he doesn't really have anything to make a movie about, he makes one anyway. This isn't necessarily such a terrible thing: As marking-time movies go, I much prefer the goofball nothingness of, say, Manhattan Murder Mystery to the furrowed-brow meaningfulness of films like September or Alice. Allen is at his best when he's closer in spirit to Brooklyn than to Sweden. He's earned a right to his doodles, but he's sure been doodling a lot lately -- remember Celebrity and Everyone Says I Love You? His latest comedy, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, is so thin that if you squint at the screen sideways it might disappear.

Which is not to say that the film, set in 1940, doesn't have its teensy, incidental pleasures. Allen plays C. W. Briggs, a renowned insurance-company investigator who operates on hunches and on tips from ex-cons and beggars. His nemesis, the Vassar-educated efficiency expert Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), who has no use for hunches, has been brought into the company to streamline operations and boost its sagging reputation. These contrasting management styles probably represent Woody Allen standing up for his personal approach to moviemaking against a bottom-line business that no longer has any room for artists. There's a lot of special pleading behind this movie's frivolities.

The film basks in an earth-toned nostalgia for the Jazz Age and bygone pop. In true vintage romantic-comedy tradition, C.W. and Betty Ann hate each other so much that they must really love each other. Allen depicts the insurance company as if it were a newspaper office from an old-time movie -- His Girl Friday, to be exact -- and he also indulges his fetish for forties pulp kitsch, with Charlize Theron playing a bratty vamp right out of The Big Sleep. He also summons at least one of his art-house heroes: The centerpiece sequence that drives the movie -- in which C.W. and Betty Ann are hypnotized into declaring their love for each other by a nightclub mentalist and crook named Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) -- carries whiffs of the great scene in Fellini's Nights of Cabiria where Giulietta Masina is placed into a trance and her most ardent hopes pour out.

But the romance between C.W. and Betty Ann doesn't have much ardor, repressed or otherwise. Helen Hunt is playing a rather poisonous role; her education and competitiveness have made Betty Ann cold and unwomanly and her personal life is a mess, whereas C.W., with his homespun hunches and his self-professed grubbiness, is supposed to be the true romantic. The entire movie is set up so that Betty Ann will eventually discard her shell and recognize C.W.'s innate adorableness. He even gets to demonstrate his bravery and rescue her. When I was in college in the seventies, Woody Allen was idolized by many of us because he was a new-style counterculture hero: a coward who nevertheless managed to connive his way into committing courageous acts. In The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, he's still playing that game; Betty Ann chews him out for not being man enough to be a thief like the thieves he collars, and he responds by out-machoing everyone. The problem is that Allen is getting a bit long in the tooth to be playing a romancer-rescuer, and since he and Helen Hunt have a rather frigid actorly rapport, we have plenty of time to notice the awkward, and barely acknowledged, disparity in their ages.

There's another reason why this movie is so oddly off-kilter. The plot hinges on C.W. being placed in and out of trances that reveal his hidden self, but Woody Allen, as a screen character, is so notoriously unhidden that the conceit almost seems like a put-on. Surely the bigger joke here would be if C.W., under hypnosis, were to babble his neuroses exactly the way he does in his normal state. To have Woody Allen play a person whose unconscious is split off from the rest of him is to go against nature itself.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin, directed by John Madden, is based on an interminable 1994 international bestseller by Louis de Bernières that I found impossible to make my way through. The movie duplicates exactly my experience with the book, although I must say I was thankful to be spared serial outbreaks of hearty Greek dancing. Nicolas Cage plays the conscripted officer of a company of lusty, opera-singing Italian soldiers occupying the Greek island of Cephallonia during World War II. Penélope Cruz is the initially rejecting but ultimately embracing islander he woos with his trusty mandolin. (Zing go the strings of her heart.) Her father, the local doctor and sage, is played by John Hurt, trying to look authentic behind a vast mustache. He spouts worldly wisdom to his daughter on cue. My favorite: "Love itself is what's left over when being in love has burned away." (At least Erich Segal wasn't so wordy.) Of course, when her love sours, she suffers from "a grief no doctor can mend."

Everyone else on the island also has a yen for cadenced pronouncements. Irene Papas, playing the mother of Cruz's partisan-hero fiancé (Christian Bale, looking as hirsute as the second stage of the Wolf Man), tells her, "You are a woman, and yet you know so many things." (Presumably acting is not one of them.) When Cruz chastises Cage for belting out Puccini during wartime, his helpful response is, "I've always found things in life worth singing about." The one belief uniting all these folks is that the Nazis are very, very bad people. Agreed.

In Brief: Kevin Smith's intermittently sidesplitting Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back has something to do with an attempt by the duo to shut down a Miramax movie being made about them. It's like a stoner-slacker version of an all-star variety show, with guest gross-out appearances by everybody from Carrie Fisher to Chris Rock to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (doing a very funny skewering of Good Will Hunting). As Jay and Silent Bob, Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith are the perfect comedy team for smart, dirty-minded 15-year-olds, which means just about all of us.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Written and directed by Woody Allen; starring Allen, Helen Hunt, and David Ogden Stiers.
Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Directed by John Madden; starring Nicolas Cage and Penélope Cruz.
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