It'll be easy to refrain from conflating Woody Allen's movies with his personal life as soon as he stops making identical mistakes in both. Scoop, a mostly limp murder-mystery comedy, raises the same quandary that comes up every time the Woodman crosses the cultural radar for any reason that doesn't specifically involve directing films: Is it his taste in women that's his undoing, or merely the untenable positions he puts them in?
For example: After Match Point, I never thought that Scarlett Johansson would be responsible for sinking an Allen picture. Yet here she is, bounding on screen as noodgy journalism student Sondra Pransky and appearing awfully tickled by the chance to 'stretch.â?� That palpable sense of self-amusement makes the performance ring false from the very first scene, as Johansson, asked to take on the role of an eager but awkward dorkette on the trail of a juicy story, approaches it from a position that's always the kiss of death for any actor: 'Wow, this part is so different from me!â?� Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but surely Johansson could have assayed it in a way that wasn't painfully exaggerated enough to suggest a lost episode of Square Pegs. (Check out the nervously accelerated speech pattern and the stereotypical snorty laugh.) A wardrobe choice that sticks Sondra in a dowdy-looking hat is a dead giveaway that the part was written for a young Diane Keaton ' an actress capable of acting ditzy without realizing that she's been cast because that's exactly who she is. Instead, we get to see an (by all outward signs) intelligent sex kitten going pleasure wading in the ugly-duckling pond. It's a complete embarrassment.
Any number of today's young character actresses ' Alyson Hannigan, perhaps ' might have better filled the bill, except for Allen's desire to have it both ways. He needs Sondra to be a card-carrying nerd, yet hot enough to tempt any man simply by taking off her glasses. The latter quality comes in handy when she has to seduce Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), a British aristocrat whom she's been led to suspect is the culprit in a string of prostitute killings. Peter is a charismatic child of privilege with a home full of treasures and unlimited social options, but one look at the spectacularly endowed Sondra in a bathing suit and he's determined to (ahem!) show her the family jewels. And she has no reservations about letting him, if it means landing a potentially career-making scoop. If you're worried by this presentation of female sexuality as a professional tool, know that Sondra impetuously sleeps with another interviewee before the story proper even gets under way ' this one a brusque filmmaker far older than she. Thank God it's not the role Allen reserved for himself.
Instead, he plays Sid Waterman, a geriatric vaudeville magician who becomes Sondra's confidante after he inadvertently hooks her up with a dead reporter while performing a cabinet trick. The newly ex-newspaperman (Ian McShane) has received a hot tip in the afterlife that Lyman is the killer, and appears before Sondra to charge her with cracking the case. Sid, as their unintended conduit, gets to go traipsing around Blighty with Sondra, throwing out quips about having to drive on the wrong side of the road while helping her pose as an American heiress to infiltrate Lyman's hoity-toity world. (Coming on the heels of Match Point, the movie furthers an Anglophilia that suits Allen about as well as it does Madonna; tellingly, both of Scoop's lead characters hail from Brooklyn.)
Sid's uncanny Woody Allen impression is paradoxically the source of the movie's only true belly laughs and its greatest humiliations. About one in every five of his barbs ' which is to say, one in every five lines of his dialogue ' have a sarcastic pizazz that reminds us why we loved Allen's act in the first place. (In one of the best gags, faux goy Sid explains that he stopped using the phrase 'Jew's harpâ?� because the chosen people write so many irate letters.) The other four in five are total washouts, with Allen stammering his way through drawn-out setups, searching for comedic inspiration that never comes.
Jackman's portrayal is the only one that works on a consistent basis. He's one of the few actors working today who can play old-school debonair in a way that's simultaneously sardonic and genuine. (Imagine if he had been around to play the lead in The Purple Rose of Cairo.) Unfortunately, Lyman as written is a mere functionary, with the least color and the least to do of all the major players.
Nobody appears to have put much effort into this thing. Actors go up on their lines and barely recover as the camera rolls. Underwritten scenes sputter out without fanfare, their purpose fulfilled long before anyone bothers to yell 'cut.â?� This isn't a finished film ' it's a table-read with costumes.
Worse, it's a read of a first draft. Allen hasn't figured out just who his heroine's proper foil is ' Sid or McShane's Joe Strombel, who pops up now and then to impel Sondra onward. Their precious few exchanges, which are far more interesting than the mostly tepid Sid/Sondra interplay, hint that the movie would have been better had it been a supernatural buddy picture in the Play It Again, Sam mold. But then Allen would be accused of repeating himself, and God forbid that should ever happen.
(Opens Friday, July 28, at AMC Altamonte Mall 18, 407-298-4488; Regal Winter Park Village Stadium 20, 407-628-0035; and AMC Pleasure Island 24, 407-298-4488)