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Deconstructing Woody

by Michael Fox

August 23, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Woody Allen wrote, directed and stars as crackerjack insurance investigator C.W. Briggs in "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion." Photo by John Clifford

Woody Allen wrote, directed and stars as crackerjack insurance investigator C.W. Briggs in "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion." Photo by John Clifford

Woody Allen doesn't stutter excitedly when he speaks. Nor does he wave his hands in a state of exaggerated panic.

The persona the New York writer and director adopts in front of the camera is, of course, just that. In person, Allen serves up almost none of his trademark shtick.

He'll toss off the occasional small joke, usually at the end of a lengthy statement that he senses is slipping into self-seriousness. But unlike, say, Robin Williams, Woody Allen isn't always on.

So much the better; in an age when intellectualism is so out of style that it's not even fodder for cheap laughs, a thoughtful Allen is downright refreshing.

"I'm not a religious person," he muses, "but in the Jewish families that I've known and grew up in there were certain social values that were common to them -- appreciation of theater, of classical music, of education, certain professions like medicine, law. When that appears in your comedy, it has the patina of Jewish humor."

His latest film, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," regrettably doesn't have the slightest hint of Jewish humor. It's a slight romantic farce set in the 1940s that's filtered through "His Girl Friday," "It Happened One Night" and any of a number of Tracy-Hepburn movies.

Co-starring Allen and Helen Hunt, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is a mild diversion that hardly ranks with the director's best. In fact, the movie offers very little to talk about.

Instead, I ask the 66-year-old Allen, who's nursing a summer cold and cough, for his thoughts on the present and future of Jewish humor.

"It's a tough question," he responds, after a brief pause. "It's a very complicated subject. No one that I know has ever really done a credible study."

"People always talk about Jewish humor, but I find the same things are true in gentile comedians that are true in Jewish comedians. When you look at what Bob Hope does when he tells jokes, or any of those comedians that are out there that are not Jewish, they do self-deprecating humor; they're cowards, they chase after beautiful women and fail. They do the same thing that Jewish comedians do."

It's worth noting that "Scorpion" supporting actress Elizabeth Berkley, a nice Jewish girl from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., best known for "Showgirls" and the teen sitcom "Saved by the Bell," never spoke with Allen on the set about their common heritage.

"I don't think Woody knows I was raised Jewish," she confided earlier with a chuckle. "He probably thinks I'm a shiksa."

Allen, who's dressed far snappier than his screen alter ego in a navy blazer, blue checked shirt, khakis and shiny brown Florsheims, is still mulling the qualities that make a joke Jewish.

"Is Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock doing Jewish humor? The content is black, but the approach is the same thing I would do. It's just that the actual experience is different. So, I don't really know how to define Jewish humor. But I know it when I see it."

Allen suddenly leans forward slightly, as if he has the answer to the puzzle. "I guess it's that humor that exploits the Jewish social fabric," he gently asserts.

It's no secret that Allen idolizes the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman who, late in his career, drew on his own parents' tumultuous courtship and wedding for several outstanding screenplays (most notably, "The Best Intentions"), directed by other filmmakers in the last decade.

I harbor the hope that Woody Allen has a couple of personal Jewish stories in his drawer of potential ideas, waiting -- as Bergman did -- until after his parents are gone to commit them to celluloid.

"I always wished my talent lay in the dramatic form," Allen confides. "I would much rather be Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams than a comic persona, a comic playwright. But that's not what happened. That's not who I am.

"But I would love to try some more dramas before I'm finished working and see what happens. Maybe over the years I've developed enough skill at them to be able to do them better than I've done them in the past. I've always had a greater admiration for Bergman and Chekhov than I have had for the comic people that I'm supposed to like."

Would he draw on autobiographical details and situations for those dramas?

"Yes, I'm sure I would because it's the path of least resistance, and I always take that." Allen chuckles and hastens away, eager to return to the solitude of writing another script.

"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" opens Aug. 24.

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