In the years following Annie Hall, as Woody Allen drifted further into the world of "serious" filmmaking, a faction of his audience openly pined for a return to the straight comedy of his early work. His later efforts, that faction claimed, were simply the affectations of a world-class gagsmith with misplaced artistic ambition; the real Woody Allen waited somewhere beneath. However belatedly, Allen's most recent efforts, the relatively straightforward comedies Small Time Crooks and The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, appear to address this issue, offering appeasement to fans still waiting for a return to the earlier, funnier stuff. But instead of proving them correct, these films make an excellent case for Allen's initial decision to move beyond his origins. Set in a lovingly photographed version of '40s New York, Scorpion concerns the adventures of an unconventional but effective insurance investigator (Allen) who feels his job is threatened by the arrival of outwardly assured efficiency expert Helen Hunt. Squabbling daily, the two appear destined for continual squabbling, until a nightclub hypnotist (David Odgen Stiers) reveals other feelings hidden beneath their clashes. But Stiers, a sort of in-the-flesh radio villain, has another agenda in mind: using Allen and Hunt's impressionable post-hypnotic brains to steal the jewels of affluent locals. Inoffensive almost to the point of perversity, The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion is the kind of film that might be called pleasant if it had a little more going for it. Sparkless and sluggishly paced, it's something of a minor ordeal, particularly for Allen fans. Where in the past his films could at least be counted on to function as delivery systems for memorable one-liners, Scorpion provides few reminders of Allen's skill. This proves sadly symptomatic of the film's larger problems. Playing like a theatrical adaptation, it feels stagebound and under-rehearsed, complete with awkward pauses following laughless exchanges. An attempted homage to sophisticated studio comedies, it features a cast that seems unfamiliar with Allen's points of inspiration, from the thoroughly modern Hunt to Charlize Theron's awkward attempt at a Veronica Lake-like vamp. Throughout his career, Allen has created films that are funny, insightful, touching, shamelessly derivative, out of touch, hateful, overreaching, and often some combination of those elements. Only recently has he appeared content to be merely forgettable.