“Scoop”, the new film from director Woody Allen, just doesn’t work on any level. I strongly suspect Allen’s producers negotiated a budget and allotted time to complete two films. “Match Point” took more of both than planned so Allen was left with limited resources. The result? “Scoop”
Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johannson), an American journalism student living in London, attends a magic show with her friend and roommate, Vivian (Romola Garai). The Great Splendini (Allen), aka Sid Waterman, asks Sondra to volunteer for a trick and places her in his disappearing box trick. While waiting inside, Sondra is visited by the spirit of Joe Strombel (Ian McShayne, HBO’s “Deadwood”), the recently deceased British journalism legend. Strombel has learned the scoop of a lifetime; while traveling to heaven, he meets the recently deceased secretary of Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) who suspects Lyman, son of a Lord, is the Tarot Card Killer. Sondra enlists the aid of Sid and they set out to uncover the facts. Sondra soon meets the dashing Lyman and they begin dating. As they fall in love, Sid and Joe (who continues to visit them from beyond) continue to insist Peter is a killer and she should keep up her guard.
Allen is easily the most frustrating director currently working in the industry. The creator of many great comedies, he has spent the last decade squandering not only his talents, but those of the impressive list of actors who seem to quickly and readily agree to work in his films. Then, last year saw the arrival of a glimmer of hope. “Match Point”, a surprisingly good, surprisingly different drama from the director. Shot in London, with a predominantly English cast, the film marked a radical departure in setting, tone and story for the director. The film was a tremendous success critically and financially.
Now, he follows that success with “Scoop”, the second consecutive film set in London, starring Scarlett Johannson, and featuring a predominantly British cast. This time, Allen adds himself to the mix of actors and changes the tone to light comedy.
“Scoop” is especially sad because it seems entirely recycled from ideas in Allen’s better films. The film opens with a group of British journalists sitting in a pub, discussing their memories of the late, great Joe Strombel. When we first meet Joe, he is riding a ship captained by Death. Sondra and Sid meet during his magic act and attempt to solve a murder case. “Broadway Danny Rose”, “Mighty Aphrodite”, Allen’s segment of “New York Stories” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery”.
Filmmakers frequently revisit familiar themes, but blatant recycling usually signifies a lack of ideas.
Johannson’s Sondra is a troublesome creation and easily the actress’ worst role to date. A proclaimed journalism student, we first meet her as she attempts to get an interview with a visiting American film director for the school newspaper. The next day, she nonchalantly announces to her friend that she ended up sleeping with him. With the subject of her interview? Such great journalistic integrity. I can’t figure out if this was supposed to be funny or not. It isn’t.
Johannson rushes through most of her lines, in an attempt to portray Sondra as anxious, but it merely makes her character seem like a high school student in a bad play. It is also difficult to determine the moment Sondra actually falls in love with Peter, because the actress never changes her facial expressions. Every time she is near Peter, she stares at him with adoration, whether she suspects him of murder or not. There is never even the slightest hint of Sondra questioning him or his motives. She simply seems to fall head over heels for him.
Allen does his darnedest to provide the film with some funny one liners. Every time he appears on screen, he rattles off a series of intended jokes, attempting to get the audience to laugh and remind us this is a comedy. As he rattles these off, he even conveniently pauses for us to get the punch line and stop laughing, before continuing to the next joke. The only problem is these jokes aren’t remotely funny and pausing for the laughter only draws painful attention to this fact.
Hugh Jackman plays the dashing Peter Lyman and he fares best of the entire cast. Throughout, he brings a simple, wide-eyed curiosity to Peter’s pursuit of Sondra. But he isn’t funny either. Or that interesting as he mainly reacts to Johannson and Allen’s characters, basically playing the straight man.
Ian McShayne, fresh off his critical acclaim for “Deadwood”, plays Joe Strombel, a legend in British journalistic circles. It is amusing to watch him still pursue a lead, even into the after life, but why would he pick Sondra? It doesn’t make any sense. A veteran newsperson would not trust such a tremendous story to someone with no published credits. The man is dead; surely he could pop up in the home of a more respected journalist? After he makes his first appearance, Sid also sees him. But why? It isn’t explained and it becomes an inconsistent element in an already inconsistent film.
McShayne’s role is very small and doesn’t do anything to show off the actor’s talents. After watching his powerful, mesmerizing work in “Deadwood”, I was hoping he would have the opportunity to create another memorable character. It didn’t happen.
Allen has tread the comedy-mystery route before in “Manhattan Murder Mystery”, a far better effort featuring Allen reteaming with his former co-star and lover, Diane Keaton. In it, Keaton and Allen are married and live in a New York apartment building. Keaton soon suspects an aging neighbor of murdering his wife and sets out to uncover the truth, much to Allen’s shock. This set-up is more successful because we could see a husband getting roped into his wife’s crazy adventures. In “Scoop”, Sondra immediately partners with Sid, the magician. But why? They are complete strangers when Joe Strombel makes his first appearance. But soon, Sid is following Sondra around, paying for taxis, sodas, etc. Later, he begins masquerading as her father. Thank God for that. At least Allen had the good sense to avoid playing Johannson’s boyfriend or ‘lover’. Why he begins following her around is never fully explained.
When Allen’s Sid is first introduced as The Great Splendini, he seems amazed that his sorry, bad magic tricks are working, keeping an audience entranced.
I am equally amazed that Allen, director of “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan”, “Broadway Danny Rose”, “Match Point”, “Hannah and her Sisters”, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and many others, thought “Scoop” was worthy of our time, attention and his name. Watching the film simply made me sad as I remembered all of the great films Allen used to make.