Curse of the ageing little schnook

Film - Philip Kerr on yet another improbable romance from Woody Allen and his ego

What with the vagaries of film distribution in Britain, Woody Allen's "latest" film, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, is now almost two years old; and since making it, Allen has made and released yet another, titled Hollywood Ending. Just to let you know exactly how long it is since The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was released in America, I saw it at a New York cinema where Captain Corelli's Mandolin was also opening.

Given that most modern video players in this country can now accommodate the American NTSC format, you would be well advised - should you wish to see The Curse of the Jade Scorpion - not to go to a cinema at all, but to order up a VHS copy from Amazon, for about two quid. That's right, two quid. At a central London cinema, you couldn't buy Coke and popcorn for two quid. And although it may not be one of Woody Allen's best films, it's by no means his worst, and is certainly worth a couple of quid, plus postage.

Allen returns to the 1940s, to play an insurance investigator in a romantic comedy that matches him against Helen Hunt, playing a humourless efficiency expert. The two hate each other with venom until, under the influence of a stage hypnotist wielding a trance-inducing jade scorpion at an office party, they both reveal hidden desires for each other, at the same time as being set up to commit a series of jewel robberies. It's light, Bob Hope kind of stuff (My Favorite Brunette), intermittently amusing with a few good one-liners, and nicely shot, too.

Woody Allen has always specialised in the improbable romance, as, over the years, we were asked to believe that some of Hollywood's most attractive women could fall for a little schnook like him. But he is now 67 years old and it seems just as preposterous to me that someone as lovely as Helen Hunt could ever fall for a character played by Allen. Watching the then 39-year-old Hunt kissing a man as old and small as Woody Allen struck me as more than a little indecent, like Humbert Humbert bouncing Dolores Haze on his pyjama'd lap. Think about it - I bet Allen did - when Love and Death (my own Woody Allen favourite) was released back in 1975, Hunt would have been just 12 years old.

Was Allen damaged by his very messy falling out with Mia Farrow? Certainly, there's not much trace of this in any of the New York reviews of Jade Scorpion, or, for that matter, Hollywood Ending. But elsewhere in the world, I detect a certain cooling. Allen's audiences have never been large, but, given his incredible productivity (in the past 30 years, he has written and directed 29 pictures), people have stopped looking forward to his movies and learnt to expect them, with the same enthusiasm they might evince toward some neurotic, angst-ridden relation who was threatening to come and visit them. What's even worse is that Allen's movies have become much more expensive to make at about the same time as they have stopped making money. For example, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion cost $26m to make, while worldwide grosses have been just $16m. Hollywood Ending, released in the US in May 2002, cost $16m to make and took 36 per cent less in US domestic gross than Jade Scorpion.

But while it is clear to the rest of the world that the box office cannot continue to accommodate Allen's prolific level of movie production, it's perhaps not so obvious to him. A while ago, at Elton John's house in the south of France, I had dinner with Jean Doumanian. Doumanian is the producer of eight of Allen's most recent films and the woman who stood by him, continuing to finance his movies after his long-time studio, TriStar, got cold feet in the wake of the scandal over Allen's break-up with Farrow and his affair with her daughter, now his wife. I remember being struck by Doumanian's loyalty to Allen, and her obvious affection for the man and his films, and thinking how lucky Allen was to have a producer like her. The following year, Allen sued Doumanian, alleging she had cheated him out of $14m.

At the time of writing, the legal proceedings have just ended, with the parties settling out of court. I imagine most people would think it rather strange to hope to remain friends with someone you were suing for $14m. But Allen clearly did. That's what I call a real Hollywood ending.

By all accounts, the nine-day trial was a lot like one of Allen's more recent films: shrill, frivolous, with an improbable plot - Allen wrote Doumanian a note saying: "This was supposed to be amusing, like a Tracy-Hepburn movie, in court by day, friends by night" - and a few good one-liners, mostly from the judge; but, again just like one of his movies, despite much media attention, it was not well attended by the public. In the days of Tracy and Hepburn, Hollywood endings looked a little different.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (12a) is on general release