[National Review Online, July 28, 2006]
After a run of movies that were so-so or worse, Woody Allen won praise for last year’s “Match Point,” and hopes were raised that he’d again found his footing. Unfortunately, “Scoop” slips. A comedy that is not very funny, a murder mystery that is not very suspenseful, “Scoop” is one more in a series of movieplex disappointments this summer.
Like “Match Point,” “Scoop” is set in London and stars Scarlett Johansson. And like “Match Point,” the mystery involves a man who may or may not have committed murder, specifically of a sex partner. (If you admired “Match Point,” you’ll find the material covered much more effectively in Allen’s 1989 “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”) But “Scoop” wraps the mystery in a clumsy comedy, in which the pretty 21-year-old Johansson is compelled to wear round glasses and affect the fumbling, nervous manner of “Annie Hall” (1977), or even Woody himself. In some of her lines you can an uncanny impression of Woody Allen circa 1970, and it’s easy to imagine the director repeating the line over and over until she got the desired intonation exactly memorized.
Scarlett Johansson is an appealing and gifted actress, and apparently agreeable to such direction, but in this film she appears to be under a strain. She plays Sondra Pransky, an American journalism student visiting friends in London. There’s a strange opening sequence in which she runs into much-older movie director in a hotel lobby, reminds him that she had sent a letter asking for an interview, and then bops into his room with her notepad ready. The next thing we know, she’s moaning to her friend that she went to bed with the director and didn’t even get the interview. His character never reappears in the movie and has no purpose in the plot. In a 96 minute movie you hardly have time for sequences that are meaningless, but I hate to think what Woody’s other motives might have been.
Sondra then accompanies her friend to an afternoon variety show that includes a stage magician called Splendini (played by Allen). As part of his act, Splendini selects an audience member to step into an ornate case and then “disappear.” (In “New York Stories,” 1989, it was Allen’s mother who stepped into the case and then literally disappeared, only to reappear as a vast, complaining face in the sky.) But when Sondra is closed in the case, someone joins her.
It is hardworking investigative reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), who recently died of a coronary, and has been floating on a boat in a misty river, helmed by a silent shrouded Death figure (more staid than the one in “Love and Death,” 1975). On this boat in the netherworld, Strombel met a fellow-deceased who gave him a major tip, and he can’t bear to let it go. He wants Sondra, the journalism student, to follow up a lead that the “Tarot Card Killer” currently terrorizing London is none other than the handsome son of a British Lord, Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman).
Sondra inexplicably takes Splendini along as she attempts to meet Lyman, and there’s another pointless scene in which they follow a man into an antique shop, and then realize it’s the wrong guy. No laughs or plot purpose for this scene. But eventually she does meet Lyman, and passes Woody off as her father; from then on they are an ostensibly comic detective team, investigating the mystery with help from Strombel’s clues. Plenty here recalls “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993), but it just doesn’t have the same zip. In the earlier film, there’s a hilarious and tense scene where Woody is almost caught investigating a host’s room during a party. Here, same set-up, but it fizzles. Woody is discovered standing outside the door of the room with a plausible excuse. He used to have better dramatic sense than that.
Like Johansson, Hugh Jackman acts as hard as he can, and so does McShane. It appears that everyone on the set is bringing every ounce of energy they can to their roles, but it’s like trying to get an ostrich to fly; no amount of tense effort can get it off the ground. The characters are curiously detached from each other, as if each role were filmed separately and then digitized together.
Surprisingly, some of the cinematography also looks off – something that, given Woody’s experience, ought to be perfect. A chase on foot in the evening is too dark, and several other scenes appeared to be out of focus. I know, the rule is “blame the projectionist,” but it seemed that certain objects onscreen were in focus and others weren’t. It was as if the depth of focus was extremely shallow, and anything too many inches away went fuzzy. For example, Splendini and Sondra sit on either side of a table in a newspaper office, looking away from us toward an editor who sits at the end, between them. His face is fuzzy, while theirs, only a little closer to us, are crisp. This can’t be intentional: we’re looking at the sides of their faces, and Sondra is wearing a big hat; it was the editor whose face we needed to see. Likewise, Lyman and Sondra sitting in a boat on a lake are fuzzy, while the side of the wooden boat is crisp.
It’s impossible to think about “Scoop” without recalling so many elements from earlier, better Woody Allen movies. Perhaps he is searching for inspiration by asking himself which of his films got the best reviews, or gave him the most satisfaction. But films like this one only bring down his average from excellent to so-so. Rent one of the earlier movies, and avoid “Scoop.”