2006Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen, Hugh Jackman
oody Allen’s new movie, Scoop, begins with an ending: a funeral. We hear about the recently departed journalist Joe Strombel, “a credit to the fourth estate,” and it’s not long before we see Joe (Ian McShane) himself, riding through a murky fog on a boat piloted by Death. Using this inevitable Bergman reference as his comic foundation, Allen builds up the remainder of his newest London murder plot. Post-mortem, Joe comes across the scoop of the century—the identity of a long elusive serial killer—and returns as a ghost to tell Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), an American journalism student in London and apparently the writer closest at that moment to the afterlife. The sprightly Pransky dashes off to solve the mystery, dragging with her an aged magician (Allen), and she soon finds herself attracted to her suspect, Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), a lord’s son.
If this plot sounds implausible, remember that Allen’s previous film, the acclaimed London murder drama Match Point, features an equally implausible setup hanging entirely on a single mention of the opera. Since Allen has struggled in recent years with dull and uninspired comedic efforts like Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda, the similarity his new comedy shares with his much longed-for success is hard to ignore. Both Scoop and Match Point involve elaborate murders motivated by social class. Both include Johansson as the promiscuous American blonde. And where Match Point concerned itself with issues of classism, sexism, and intellectualism, Allen’s latest covers much of the same ground. Only the intellect is missing, in more ways than one.
Scoop is Match Point. Not an exact copy, obviously; rather, Allen’s comfortable comic rehashing of his most atypical success. Allen’s comfort here is the key. While Match Point was tightly wound with meaning and metaphor, Scoop is a loose collection of long-winded setups to the sorts of punchlines that Allen has given us so many times before. An entire poker game begins to develop a joke around the painter Rubens. A tour of an English manor only allows Allen to pun off the writer Trollope’s name. At times, you laugh louder than you expect—Woody still has wit—but the gaps of silence in between laughter prove that Allen’s once unrelenting comic brilliance now manifests itself in small and unsatisfying chunks.
The film’s performances do little to help matters. Allen is the best as the mediocre but still entertaining conjurer, Stanley Waterman. Nevertheless, he is getting old, and his fatherly banter with the college-aged Johansson will never work on the level of his past rapport with Mia Farrow or Diane Keaton. Meanwhile, the Australian-born Jackman plays faux-British posh, while Johansson fails to keep up with Allen’s humor and language. “It’s just all too much,” she says at one point, a simple enough line that she delivers like an eighth-grader reading for a part in the school play.
Where Johansson does not live up to the film’s writing, Allen and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin do equal injustice to the film’s location. One of the strongest points of Allen’s filmmaking has always been his recognition of small beauties in big places, specifically the settings he finds in New York. It does not feel as if he has gotten to know London quite as well. Match Point featured so many landmarks it could have passed as a tourism video. In Scoop, the identity of England is entirely ignored. The two main characters are Americans with flimsy excuses for being overseas (visiting a friend and just because). The scenery never plays into the film’s presentation of class, since the female amateur journalist saunters into the elite London club with shocking ease; several members of the House of Lords must be off somewhere harrumphing. The result is a movie culturally void, unable and unwilling to acknowledge the British or American cultures under which it was made. What we might have forgotten in the straight-faced Britannia of Match Point is affirmed again here: Allen is still Allen, and he is, for better or worse, a New Yorker.
Scoop is then a misplaced joke, an empty recreation of an old and, at this point, fading tone, delivered to a foreign audience. Judged against such top-tier Allen as Manhattan, Annie Hall, and, indeed, Match Point, it does not even register. If anything, Scoop makes Match Point seem like more of a risk. With his newest film, Allen hastily delivers the movie he knew his fans expected of him when he first said he was going to London. Behind each crack on Englishness, on driving on the wrong side of the road, on that comic wealth, the Smart Car, you hear the heavy exhale of a funnyman who has been politely holding it all in. It might be a nice release for Allen, but his audience will tire of the noise.
Scoop is playing in theatres across the country.
By: Arthur Ryel-Lindsey
Published on: 2006-08-02