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Times Staff Writer

If Woody Allen were a painter, a lot of his movies could be classified as studies for works in progress. "Scoop" feels like a tentative doodle in the general direction of "Match Point," only chronologically reversed and more or less amusing. A murder mystery in the vein of "Manhattan Murder Mystery," the action unfolds in London, in the crispiest parts of its upper crust. It's all very civilized and cozy, which is good because the jokes, God help them, are so ancient and creaky you're compelled to offer them your seat. (No, really, it's no trouble at all.)

The analogy also applies because Allen is a good example of how success is defined in the art world: Do something surprising and zeitgeist-y early in your career, then rip yourself off forever. (Allen, who has been around for a very long time, has reached the point where he's also allowed to rip off others.) Whatever fresh cultural nerves his comedy touched 30 years ago have long limped off into the sunset. By now, it's branding. Even as you laugh, you half wonder what you're laughing at when you titter as Allen stammers, "You're a beautiful human being and a credit to your race," for the third time. Is it actual mirth? Discomfort? Trained behavioral response? It's certainly not recognition of anything outside his own filmic universe.

Allen's view of women has gone from problematic to contemptuous over the years. The young ones, depending on bra size, are either tragic sexpots or bird-brained ingénues. The older ones — well, look at what happened to Judy Davis. Twice. In "Match Point," Scarlett Johansson dodged a big, familiar-looking bullet that has felled more experienced, formidable actresses. A nervier, less earthy performer might have collapsed into a chain-smoking heap of hysteria to play the character of Nola, but Johansson's throaty voice and solid features kept her as grounded as it was possible to be under the circumstances.

This time, she's not so lucky. In "Scoop," she again plays an American abroad who finds herself not just in a different country but in a different world. Sondra Pransky (as unlikely a name for a woman of her generation and background as anyone could ask for) is a gung-ho journalism student visiting her plummy friend Vivian (Romola Garai). As befits Allen's idea of comedy, she's far more resilient and cheerful than she was in the last film, but a lot more clueless too. Desperate for a story with which to wow her friends back in Buffalo or wherever, she tries to land an interview with a famous film director. Instead, she lands in bed with him without knowing quite how it happened. (She feels so stupid!) Back at Vivian's, Sondra agrees to some cheering up, and she and her friend attend a performance by Splendini (Allen), a hack magician performing to packed houses. While waiting in a box to be sawed in half, she is confronted by the ghost of recently departed investigative journalist Joe Strumbel (Ian McShane). Strumbel has just gotten the postmortem scoop of the century: The dead secretary of Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) has accused him of killing her along with a slew of prostitutes. Titled, loaded and sideburned, Peter is dreamboat of the realm and rising political star. Unfortunately, he might also be the Tarot Card Killer.

Why Strumbel shares this information with Sondra is unclear — especially when his old colleagues had such nice things to say about him at the wake. But she runs with it, enlisting the reluctant Splendini, whose real name is Sid Waterman, to help her insinuate herself into Peter's life. Why she thinks this is a good idea, considering her posh setup at Vivian's, is anybody's guess, as the chip on Sid's shoulder keeps threatening to roll off the side of his neck and crush half the English peerage every time she drags him to one of Peter's parties. But it works, and before you know it, Peter has fallen for Sondra like she's Wallis Simpson. Jackson has such a vulpine air about him, it's hard to believe that his character would fall for such a Mindy — unless, of course, he wants to roast and eat her, which at times is what he seems to want. Before she knows it, Sondra is happily ensconced in Peter's world of privilege (it could be a theme park!) and forgetting all about the killer.

There's nothing in "Scoop" that we haven't seen or heard before — in recent Woody Allen, vintage Woody Allen or "A Place in the Sun," but the rapport between Allen and Johansson (pretending to be father and daughter) is lively, and the variations on the same old jokes are plentiful. Overall, though, it feels like an exercise. At this point, giggling at a zinger like "I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but when I got older I converted to Narcissism" feels indicative of healthy reflexes more than anything else.


MPAA rating: PG-13 for some mild sexual content

A Focus Features release. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Producers Letty Aronson, Gareth Wiley. Director of photography Remi Adefarasin. Editor Alisa Lepselter. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

In selected theaters.

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