Scoop

Woody Allen is back to his old, tiresome tricks in “Scoop,” a minor comedy that could be described as a cross between “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.” Like the former, “Scoop” revolves around two ordinary people roaming around a city they don't know, trying to make sense of something that's not their business, and like the latter, the major figure is that of a magician (here played by Allen himself).

Allen's second consecutive film to be set and shot in London, following “Match Point,” “Scoop” stars Scarlett Johansson, who has become Allen's muse, though the new work might go down as the first movie in which she gives a lukewarm, not entirely satisfying performance, after a decade of great work, including “Match Point.”

The good news is that Allen, 71, is not playing a romantic lead anymore, and is not chasing after young chicks, as he did up to his 60s. (You may recall the embarrassment of watching Allen courting Julia Roberts, and in Paris no less, in “Everyone Says I Love You”). Having aged considerably, Allen has cast himself in a major role, but as a surrogate father figure.

“Scoop” begins rather promisingly with the mourning of the late British journalist Joe Strombel (Ian McShane, who can be seen now in TV's “Deadwood”) by his colleagues. Stuck in limbo, Joe remains committed to pursuing a hot tip on the identity of the Tarot Card Killer at large in London. Question is, how can Joe's legwork get done now Quite simple, per Allen: through the peppy and curious Sondra Pransky (Johansson), an American journalism student visiting friends in London.

During a stage performance by another American, magician Sid Waterman (Allen), Sondra is shocked to realize that she's able to see and hear Joe. From beyond the grave, Joe gives her the scoop of a lifetime, urging her to pursue it. Sondra immediately starts chasing the big story, enlisting the aid of the reluctant Sid (a.k.a. Splendini).

That chase leads right to handsome British aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman). Soon, Sondra finds that what feels like the romance of her life may well be the dangerous scoop shes looking for.

“Scoop” draws on a standard suspense-film gimmick, where an innocent character is, for one reason or another, sucked into a story he has no real interest in, considering it a waste of time and energy. In “Scoop,” Sid is a reluctant “hero,” a man talked into action by Sondra based on her amiable and energetic personality.

From beyond the grave, Joe feels protective and paternal towards Sondra, and so does Sid. He starts to get involved with the story, and gradually gets carried away with it to the point of obsession. Sid's common sense tells him not to get involved, that it's going to lead to trouble, but clearly someone who comes from his neighborhood and country, who he can identify with and empathize with. If he gets more and more drawn into the scheme, it's largely due to Sondra's boundless enthusiasm and relentless pursuit of her subject.

Peter Lyman is the type of man who can be seen on the covers of “Hello!” or “OK!” magazines in England. Unlike American tabloids, their British counterparts are notorious for dwelling on the social set of aristocrats and their offspring. A descendant of a well-established family, Peter is a debonair man about town who dates the latest models. Peters world is quite formal. When he meets Sondra, whom he initially knows as Jade Spence, hes completely intrigued by her. Beguiling, sexy, and charming, she's spunky and forthright in the way that young American women are (and, by implication, British are not).

The notion that Sondra gets the tip from a ghost induces some chuckles but no more. And Allen succeeds in building (but not sustaining) tension and some complications between Sondra and Peter, after she falls in love with him.

Overall, though, “Scoop” is not compelling or entertaining as a murder mystery or light comedy. And to say that it's much inferior to “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” itself a flawed comedy, is to give it a backhanded compliment. Allen has never been good at using real-life or fictional scandals as source materials, as was clear in his previous flicks.

“Scoop” is meant to be smart and funny, with occasional tonal shifts to darker moments. Allen may be paying tribute to Margaret Rutherford in her popular “Miss Marple” film series, or perhaps fantasizing himself as follower in the footsteps of Peter Sellers' clumsy and mumbling Inspector Clouseau, in the “Pink Panther” pictures.

As he showed in “Match Point,” Allen is intrigued by Britain's rigid class structure and the lifestyle of the upper-upper blue-blood echelon (which doesn't exist in the U.S. with such pure formality). However, placing the story against such system might have been a mistake. With all due respect to Hugh Jackman, who's charming but not entirely credible as a budding politician and the son of a Lord suspected of being a serial killer.

Never a good sign, Allen borrows ideas and images from other directors. Here he pays tribute to some of Hitchcock's tricks. There's a scene, in which Sondra brings milk to Peter, that explicitly refers to “Suspicion,” where Cary Grant brings a glass of milk to Joan Fontaine. Unfortunately, Allen also recycles from his own work. In this picture, there's a lake and boat scene that repeats a similar scene in “Match Point.”

Reteaming with cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, following the more successful “Match Point,” Allen gives the film an uneven visual look. As a director, Allen has become quite lazy; “Scoop” lacks sharp vision. Allen works fast, without much rehearsal time,often printing the first or second take.

Under Allen's (mis) guidance, Johansson's interpretation is inconsistent. At times, her role feels like a throwback to those spunky young reporters in classic screwball comedies, played by the likes of Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, and Stanwyck, while at others, she's the naive and innocent girl.

Jackman benefits from being Australian with English parents, having spent time in England. He does well the combo of charm, enigma, and reserved detachment. Jackman is a likable handsomer who acts and moves gracefully, with the debonair charm and sophistication of Cary Grant, who might have served as an inspiration for his character and performance.

As for Allen's acting, we have seen it all before–the nervous, hesitant delivery, the occasional stuttering–here applied to the basic character of the nebbish as a boorish private eye.

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