After Woody Allen had made one too many “serious” films, his devoted fans longed for him to go back to being funny again. Things now have come full circle, for after “Scoop,” they’re going to wish the Woodman would stick to serious drama from now on. New pic reps a dismaying comic revisiting of the same themes and dramatic situations he so richly mined in his last film, “Match Point,” in his second feature in a row fixated on murder and deception among contempo London’s upper crust. Focus Features release fails in inverse ratio to how its predecessor succeeded, and will thus lose Allen much of the critical goodwill and modestly improved B.O. strength he so recently regained.
After the accomplished smoothness of “Match Point,” it’s back to more ragged form in “Scoop,” despite the almost identical posh settings, the return of Scarlett Johansson as leading lady and the continued collaboration of key crew, notably lenser Remi Adefarasin.
The beginning is not unpromising, and one can remain hopeful for the first reel or so. A just-deceased star newspaper reporter, Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), passes the time during a nocturnal crossing of the River Styx talking with a woman who claims she was poisoned because she discovered the identity of a serial killer who’s been terrifying London. Excited by the potential scoop, Strombel jumps overboard to pursue the story.
Wide-eyed, eager and slightly geeky Sondra Pransky (Johansson) is a Yank student journalist visiting England whose first attempt to score an interview ends instead with her becoming just another notch in the belt of a macho film director. On a night out, she’s selected to participate in a disappearing act conducted by stage magician Sid Waterman (Allen), who places Sondra inside a cabinet while delivering his shtick. Whom should she meet inside the box but Joe Strombel, who tells her the Tarot Card Killer is one Peter Lyman before promptly vanishing.
Revelation sets off a highly unlikely hunt by the very green Yank journo (she’s never even heard of Jack the Ripper) with the even more unlikely assistance of Sid, who kvetches and kvails at everything while working Sondra into a state of anxiety that almost matches his own. Peter Lyman, as everyone in elevated Brit circles knows (Sondra is staying, natch, with very rich friends), is the handsome, sophisticated and debonair son of Lord Lyman, and is convincingly played as such by the handsome, sophisticated and debonair Hugh Jackman.
Plotting to worm her way into Peter’s life to get the goods on him, Sondra contrives to force him to “save” her from a swimming mishap at his club, and one look at her in a bathing suit guarantees Peter’s willing cooperation in her research. This development would seem to render wizened old Brooklyner Sid the odd man out in the narrative but, having written a role for himself, Allen figures out a way to keep himself front and center, however irrelevantly.
Sadly, Allen’s patented harangues and complaints have rarely been more irritating, not only because they sound like barely revised versions of those we’ve heard many times before, but because his broad accent and uncouth manner stand out so conspicuously amid so many well-spoken British thesps. Asked with some bemusement by some stiff old Brits about his background, Sid replies, “I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but when I got older I converted to narcissism.”
Amidst this cast of great-looking younger actors, however, Allen seems an unlikely candidate for high marks in narcissism. Looking significantly older than when he last appeared onscreen (in “Anything Else” three years back), Allen comes off as a disagreeably disgruntled curmudgeon whose wit has curdled and who has been shoehorned into a story about deceit among sexy young people. At least Allen, at long last, has not cast himself as a prospective romantic interest for his early-20s female partner, deigning instead to assign himself the role of a father figure.
So closely does “Scoop” hew to “Match Point” in the playing out of its morality charade that the one scene that would have explicitly acknowledged the latter film’s debt to Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” and George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun” — the famous rowboat drowning — is actually included here.
To be fair, in tone and in its relative weightlessness, new pic has more in common with some of the filmmaker’s goofy little crime comedies like “Manhattan Murder Mystery” — also about amateur sleuths — than with “Match Point” or that film’s closest cousin, “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” But to anyone who hoped his last film promised both a new resurgence of seriousness and artistry, “Scoop” can only be a prime disappointment.
Johansson, made to play down her sexiness at times with big round glasses and some unfashionable clothes, seems to be channeling both Allen and an assortment of semi-daffy female characters from previous Allen pics. Jackman is smoothness personified and McShane, while vigorous as the enterprising journo whom death denies his greatest story, should be cashing in on his “Deadwood” career rebirth with more rewarding roles. Charles Dance is in briefly for an excellent turn as a newspaper editor evaluating Sondra’s story.
Classical music extracts are predominantly from Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Greig.