When you direct an average of one film per year over the course of 40 years, they can't all be ambitious epics, a fact that most Woody Allen fans have made peace with. We know that for every "Bullets Over Broadway" or "Hannah and Her Sisters" or "Annie Hall," there are bound to be a few films of limited scope, toss-offs like "Hollywood Ending" or "Curse of the Jade Scorpion." While those two films stunk, in Small Mode, Allen has made films like "Love and Death" or "Sweet and Lowdown," offerings with plenty to recommend them. Coming off the critical and financial windfall of "Match Point," it isn't surprising to see Allen down-shift for his latest, "Scoop." His second straight film set in London, "Scoop" is Allen at his most minor, but it still offers more wit and intelligence than the vast majority of what counts for Hollywood comedy.
After playing the damaged femme fatale in "Match Point," Scarlett Johansson is on fluffier terrain in "Scoop" playing Sondra Pransky, an American journalism student. Visiting friends in London, Sondra goes to a magic show featuring the great Splendini, Sid Waterman (Allen). As a volunteer in one of Splendini's tricks, Sondra finds herself trapped in a box with the ghost of legendary reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), who has gotten a tip that the notorious Tarot Card Killer may be handsome aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman). With the help of the ghost and the sub-par magician, Sondra attempts to track down the story of the century, but can she avoid falling in love with her leading suspect?
In both its structure and tone, "Scoop" is quite similar to Allen's 1993 "Manhattan Murder Mystery," another successful and appealing example of Allen in Small Mode. The humor doesn't stray far from the genre's usual contrived situations -- the heroine snooping through private rooms and having to cover her tracks when the hero wanders in, the seemingly damning clue with the unlikely but plausible explanation, etc. Allen's concern is quite far from the central mystery and exiting the theater, I was able to pick apart myriad plot holes in a single 10-minute conversation. The mystery makes so sense, isn't involving and probably isn't meant to be.
Instead, Allen spins a different variation on some of the same themes that fueled "Match Point." Like that film, "Scoop" reflects Allen's fascination with the British class system and the extremes that the aristocracy will go to to maintain power and image. Killer or not, Jackman's Peter is as still and bland as any Earl or Duke and the trappings of his wealth are everywhere. Allen has cast himself as the American outsider both attracted by that world and disgusted by it.
It's been easy to forget in recent years, but when he isn't casting himself as a wooer of embarrassingly young women, Allen is still capable of being a very very funny man. He overplays the nebbishy shtick here and there in pursuit of the right one-liners and he frequently hits his target. He also has super comedic chemistry with Johansson, bringing out a bubbly, fast-talking side of the actress' personality. With her sexuality downplayed, Johansson gets to go far beyond the deadpan timing she's showcased in other films. The movie's pleasure is in watching the obvious respect Allen and Johansson have for each other.
So much of the movie is about their back-and-forth, in fact, that most of the supporting players are left as afterthoughts. Jackman begins and ends his characterization at "charming" and McShane doesn't get beyond "dapper." I never even began to figure out what the lovely Romola Garai was doing as Johansson's friend, while a slew of respected British thespians -- actors like Charles Dance and Julian Glover -- are little more than wallpaper.
"Scoop" is surely a slight and flimsy film, but it's pleasant to watch Allen (and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin) wander around London and to watch Allen's new favorite leading lady expand her range.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times