Woody Allen pays loving tribute to movies like “Double Indemnity” and “The Big Sleep” with this delicious comedy for grown-ups about a 1940’s insurance investigator who, under hypnosis becomes a brilliant jewel thief.
Allen is C.W. Briggs, an old-fashioned guy who likes things the way they are, which means solving crimes through tips and hunches and having his files right where he — but no one else — can find what he needs. The boss, Mr. Magruder (Dan Ackroyd) has brought in an efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). C.W. and Betty Ann clash immediately, despising each other on sight. But then, at a colleague’s birthday celebration in a nightclub, they are both hypnotized by Voltan the magician, who has them believing that they are deeply in love. That ends when the trance is over, but Voltan plants post-hypnotic directions that make C.W. and Betty Ann obey his commands whenever he says the trigger words. Voltan calls C.W., says the magic word, and C.W., in a trance, goes off to break into the homes of his firm’s clients and steal their jewels.
Criminal and romantic mix-ups follow as C.W. and Betty Ann run into each other in all kinds of compromising positions and discover that even the most skilled hypnotist cannot make someone do or feel anything unless there is some basis in reality.
This is the lightest of light comedies, silly but sophisticated, especially by comparison to the gross-out humor of just about every other comedy released this summer. It’s unapologetically pitched at people old enough to understand a reference to Mussolini and appreciate Charlize Theron’s dead-on take on all those spoiled rich femmes fatales played by Lauren Bacall and Gail Patrick. Allen’s quirky casting (starting with himself as the leading man) may not work for some audiences, but it can be fun to watch. Hunt is particularly fine as a woman who is not as sure of herself and her choices as she would like to be.
This story is reminiscent of Allen’s segment in “New York Stories.” In that short film, a nightclub magician makes the Allen character’s secret desire come true by making his smothering mother disappear, only to become his not-so-secret nightmare when she reappears as a looming image in the sky, so that everyone in Manhattan can hear her noodging. In this movie, we again have a nightclub performer who makes some real magic with unexpected romantic consequences. Possibly, Allen is trying to say something about connections between love and magic, guilt and freedom, or heart and brain, or perhaps he is just following the advice of the aliens who visit him in “Stardust Memories” and tell him that if he wants to help humanity he should make funnier movies.
Parents should know that in keeping with the period setting, characters smoke and drink a great deal, including drinking to numb emotional pain and drinking to excess. There are sexual references, including adultery and a character who makes it clear that she sleeps around and offers herself to C.W., but there are no explicit sexual situations. Characters discuss C.W.’s old-fashioned sexism and Betty Ann’s difficulties in being accepted as a professional woman.
Families who see this movie should talk about what they might do – and what they would not do – if they were hypnotized. Betty Ann trusts both Magruder and C.W., one rightly and one wrongly. How does she decide whom to trust and how does she deal with the consequences of her choices? Is there anyone you would trust despite all appearances? Is there anyone who would trust you? What would be different if the movie were set in 2001?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and “Sleeper” and the movies that inspired this one like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” (some mature material in all of them).