2 stars (out of four)
For Woody Allen, "delivering" on screen is a basic instinct, like his need to make more films than he has ideas for. When Allen, now 70, acts in his own films he's so focused on keeping up the energy and hammering home the punch lines, he loses sight of how little a savvy veteran performer needs to do on camera to make an impact. The harder he sells, the easier it is not to buy.
Allen's latest is "Scoop," a modest but strenuous diversion in the mode of his "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993). A London-set follow-up to last year's "Match Point," the first Allen picture shot in England, "Scoop" finds Allen in a crusty-uncle role, that of magician Sid Waterman, a.k.a. "Splendini." Why this guy's working in London we never learn. But it's an excuse for him to assist college journalist Sondra Pransky, another American abroad, in her pursuit of a serial killer who leaves tarot cards at the scene of each new victim.
Scarlett Johansson, wearing owlish specs and gesticulating like mad, plays Sondra. It's a known fact: Anyone playing the lead in an Allen film risks turning into an Allen impersonator. It happened to half the actors on the planet already, from Edward Norton ("Everyone Says I Love You") to Kenneth Branagh ("Celebrity"), and it happens to Johansson here. When she and Allen trade highly variable patter and zingers in "Scoop," skulking around London in pursuit of the dashing upper-crust loafer (Hugh Jackman) they suspect to be the killer, it's like watching some sort of weird two-headed Allen monster go at it with itself.
Allen has long been hooked on magic--he once wrote a childhood-memory play, "The Floating Light Bulb"--and the plot of "Scoop" relies on the trope of the disappearing trick gone wrong. Sondra's introduced to Sid when she takes part in his magic show. Sid somehow summons up the ghost of a belated London journalist (Ian McShane of "Deadwood") who imparts a hot tip to Sondra regarding the tarot card murderer. At one point Sondra refers to Sid's "nitwit tricks," and watching her co-star Borscht Belt his way through the illusionist routines to the tune of "Sabre Dance," with an indistinct smile on his bespectacled face, you have to agree.
Taking his act out of New York and shooting in and around London has at least given Allen a new set of locales and weather patterns to capture. Like "Match Point," "Scoop" pairs writer-director Allen with cinematographer Remi Adefarasin. They blend well together. As staged, certain scenes still die in visual terms--in any movie, when Allen is confronted with a pursuit sequence, the dead air suffocates--but the "Scoop" images at least carry a nice sheen and some fluidity. While it may have been thoroughly scripted, the leitmotif in "Match Point"--that of the tennis ball hitting the net, and later, the wedding ring hitting the fence--was the most sophisticated visual hook in an Allen film in decades. And Adefarasin's creamy lighting didn't hurt.
The American press reaction to "Match Point" was a little berserk (the London critics were far harsher), but the film felt like a well-earned and considered departure. "Scoop" does not. It's more like an old shoe, resoled. Only Johansson, doing her best to Louise Lasser her way through this kvetchy young babe, and Jackman's disarmingly eligible bachelor lend some ancillary charisma. While Allen and Johansson are having a nice time acting together, there's a slightly unsettling edge to the way Allen--whose camera clearly can't get enough of his co-star--resigns himself to the neutered party in this tale. When Sondra introduces Sid as her dad to the swells buzzing around an English garden party, the way he reads the line "Thanks for telling him I'm your father" is just plain odd.
Allen's a more interesting actor than "Scoop" allows. I hate to bring up the past, but consider the first and the last scenes in "Manhattan" (1979), one of his greats. In the first scene Allen is laying out some narrative basics regarding his 42-year-old character's love affair with a 17-year-old, and in Gordon Willis' lovely black-and-white shadows, at a table at Elaine's, Allen shoots the bull so effortlessly with his co-stars, it's a tonic. In the final shot of the film Allen pays blatant homage to Chaplin's "City Lights." While his character, romantically devastated but hopeful, holds a close-up in sync with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," the shot may take the cake when it comes to egocentricity, yet it strikes a surprisingly complex chord.
"Scoop" isn't going for complexity. It's a trifle. Like its rootless vaudevillian magician, however, it feels neither here nor there, and too often the rejoinders ends in phrases such as, "I don't know what you've been smoking. . . ." No one says Woody Allen has to change with the times. But wouldn't it be great to see him in a role that, in the best way, allows him to glide?
Written and directed by Woody Allen; cinematography by Remi Adefarasin; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production design by Maria Djurkovic; produced by Letty Aronson and Gareth Wiley. A Focus Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content).
Sondra Pransky - Scarlett Johansson
Sid Waterman - Woody Allen
Peter Lyman - Hugh Jackman
Joe Strombel - Ian McShane