Like the right-wing caricature of an irresponsible welfare mother, Woody Allen seems to squirt out a creation every 10 months or so. At that rate, it's no surprise that the majority of his efforts in recent years have been mediocrities. Still, every now and then, he hits one out of the ballpark, as with his recent Match Point.
Not wanting to leave well enough alone, Allen investigates the same story as he did in Match Point, but from another perspective and in a radically different style in his latest outing, Scoop.
Scoop is a return to the Woody Allen of Bananas and Take the Money and Run. Basically, it's Allen doing corny borscht-belt comedy while a pretty woman looks on.
In this case, the pretty woman is Scarlett Johansson, who's so pretty that she could bring peace to the Middle East just by going to Haifa on a windy day and bending over while wearing a short skirt.
And as far as her acting goes, she is indeed very pretty. I'm sure that if breasts could act, hers would be Olivier. Unfortunately, much of her acting is done with other body parts, and here, she falls down a bit.
She plays Sondra Pransky, a community college journalism major who's visiting her friend Vivian (the also arresting Romola Garai) in London. Sondra is supposed to be naïve and a bit dopey, and Johansson plays the part in a broad, goofy and not at all convincing manner. She also repeatedly breaks character, popping into the persona of a word-wise Hollywood starlet. When this happens, as it does at least five times in the film, her voice, stance and expression shift suddenly and inexplicably, and you really get the feeling that you're watching someone during the rehearsals for a high school play.
Woody Allen plays Sid Waterman, a stage magician on a tour of England who encounters Pransky at one of his shows. When she volunteers to step into his vanishing cabinet, she encounters the ghost of recently deceased journalist Joe Strombel. He's played by Ian McShane, whom you may have seen as the aptly named Al Swearengen on Deadwood. McShane is great, and his sequences are some of the best.
After he dies, we see him in Charon's boat as he crosses the river Styx along with a small retinue of recently deceased English people. There, he gets a tip that the Tarot Card Killer, a Jack-the-Ripper-esque murderer who's been terrorizing London's prostitutes, is really famed socialite Peter Lyman.
Lyman is played by Hugh Jackman, who I always want to hate for some reason, but always wind up liking. He's very natural in the role, which makes Johansson's campy performance seem extremely strange, and yet, by his calm response to it, he manages to make her fit neatly into the scene. It's a rare talent for an actor to be able to use his performance to improve the sense of another's, and Jackman displays it here like it was some kind of mutant power.
Of course, as the film progresses, Sondra falls in love with Lyman while investigating him, and Sid Waterman makes a lot of baggy-pants jokes, about 42.5 percent of which are actually funny. ("I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but as I got older, I converted to narcissism." Hi-yo!!)
The opening of Scoop, which features Joe Strombel's funeral and his ride on the boat of the damned, is really funny and promising. Things go downhill when Johansson enters the picture, and then pick up again as Hugh Jackman becomes more central. The final third doesn't really try to be funny, but is completely engaging and even touching, so it might be worth sitting out the slow parts.
But Scoop is definitely a lightweight, forgettable film. It's entertaining enough, especially if you need to get into an air-conditioned movie theater to escape the eschatological heat wave and/or Tucson's torrential rains. It's mildly disappointing after the promising fresh start of Match Point, which not only didn't sound like any other Woody Allen film, but didn't look like one, either.
Where Match Point was full of gorgeous edits and precise visual effects, Scoop, like most of Allen's films, is mostly a collection of standard talking-head shots and simple transitions. It's definitely well-shot, but it lacks the visual inventiveness of Match Point, which is strange, since they're both shot by Remi Adefarasin. I imagine the comic mood of Scoop demanded a different visual style from Match Point's more somber feel, but I would love to have seen some of the novelty and intensity that Adefarasin put into Match Point. Still, if Allen's directing can make Sven Nykvist's camera work seem dull, as it did in Another Woman, then I imagine that there's no cinematographer alive who can withstand Allen's eyebeams of anti-awesomeness.
But really, as the kids say, whatevs. Scoop is definitely funnier than most episodes of The King of Queens; its dopey humor is far more intelligent than Syria's foreign policy; and it's better looking than Paris Hilton's unmade-up face, so if you're an Allen fan, you'll want to see this. If you're not, then I'm guessing you're better off checking out something that doesn't rely on you thinking, "Well, this is far from his worst effort!"