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Light, Effervescent Film From a Filmmaker on Autopilot

Scoop, Woody Allen’s (Annie Hall, Bullets Over Broadway, Hannah and Her Sisters) latest film, continues his twin love affairs with a picture-postcard perfect London (his second film made there, after last year’s Match Point) and latest muse, Scarlett Johansson (who also appeared in Match Point). Some critics saw Allen’s first foray away from his beloved Manhattan as reboot to a flagging career. Match Point was basically Allen playing to his commercial instincts mixing telegenic stars and slick visuals with a streamlined, simplified version of Allen’s existential morality play, Crimes and Misdemeanors. It worked, garnering Allen newfound praise from critics (this one excepted) and moviegoers. But can Allen obtain the same kind of success with London and Ms. Johansson in less than a year? Short answer: close, but not quite.

Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a well-respected journalist, is dead, but his spirit lives on. He crosses the Great Beyond aboard a barge transporting the recently deceased to the afterlife. Strombel strikes up a conversation with another passenger, who claims she died under mysterious, possibly murderous, circumstances. Temporarily escaping Death, Strombel makes his way back to earth to find the first reporter he can meet.

Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), an American journalism student spending the summer in London, is in mid-dematerialization (she’s the handpicked audience participant in a magic act), when Strombel visits her. Strombel shares his suspicions about the secretary’s untimely demise. Strombel offers Sondra an opportunity at the “scoop” of the title.

At a loss, Sondra returns the next day to the magic show. Her attempts to convince the magician, Sid “Splendini” Waterman (Woody Allen), don’t work until she recreates the magic act and Strombel reappears. Now both Sondra and Sid are privy to Strombel’s suspicions. Strombel’s suspicions concern a wealthy, English aristocrat, Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) and a recent spate of Jack the Ripper-like serial killings whose suspect the tabloids have dubbed the “Tarot Card Killer.”

Sondra then uses her connections to get her close to Peter while Sid masquerades as Sondra’s eccentric, card trick-obsessed father. Sondra and Peter naturally hit it off, but the clues begin to point to Peter’s involvement in the murders. Sondra hopes for the best. Sid believes the worst. One of them, of course, is right.

Story wise, Scoop isn’t much of a mystery. It isn’t much of a thriller either. Likewise with whatever promise the “innocent abroad” elements had to offer. Instead, the focus in Scoop is on the burgeoning romance between Sondra and Peter and whether the secrets they hide behind (she’s pretending to be someone else, he disappears mysteriously at least once) will sink their relationship.

Sid provides Scoop with most of the humor, usually riffing off something the nearly exasperated Sondra has said. It’s the self-deprecating humor Allen has built a career on when he’s not in “serious” mode, as he was with Match Point. What’s surprising isn’t that Allen can’t help inserting himself into his own films, but rather that his humorous digs at himself and his near limitless shortcomings still work. Alas, the Allenesque humor covers an essentially tired premise.

Performance wise, Woody Allen is Woody Allen, delivering his lines with his familiar stumble and stutter. Scarlett Johansson goes the goofball/screwball route semi-successfully. She does better here with lighter material than she did last year with Match Point (her performance as an unhappy, jilted lover veered into unpersuasive shrillness at key points). Hugh Jackman has little to do except flash his pearly whites and his perfectly sculpted pectorals, occasionally hinting at Lyman’s darker undercurrents. Since Scoop is essentially a three-character comedy/murder mystery, other supporting characters aren’t given much of a chance to shine, with the minor exception of Ian McShane’s ("Deadwood") all-too-brief appearances as the deader-than-dead, but still lively Strombel.

As for Allen objectifying the admittedly beautiful Johansson, Allen limits the skimpy clothing to one swimming pool scene and one or two others where she’s underdressed (for dramatic purposes, of course). It makes all the talks about his newfound muse (and all the questionable ethics that entails) far easier to bear or, rather ignore, as Scoop unfolds with Allen’s light touch. In the end the film may not even be second tier Allen (he hasn’t really tried very hard here and it shows), but it’s still an engaging, diverting minor work from a master filmmaker, and is as effervescent as it is evanescent.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars