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July 28, 2006



Throwaway Comedy
Woody Cranks Out An Unpolished Vehicle For Scarlett Johansson
By Cole Smithey


Set in London, "Scoop" finds Scarlett Johansson as Sondra Pransky, a nerdy and naive student journalist lured into the story of a lifetime. She needs to prove that son-of-privilege Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the Tarot Card serial killer that a voice from the dead (Ian McShane) tells her Lyman is. Woody Allen does dual directing and acting duties. Sid Waterman (Allen) is an ex-pat magician living in London who teams up with Sondra pretending to be her goofy father in order to help her solve the case.

"Scoop" may not rise to the narrative ingenuity of "Match Point" but it does capture Scarlett Johansson paraphrasing Woody Allen’s signature amusing rhythms in a lilting but thin comedy that makes England look like heaven on earth.

Woody Allen wrote "Scoop" specifically for Scarlett Johansson after their work together on "Match Point." It’s the first time in four years (since "Hollywood Ending") that Allen has written himself an acting part. His writing efforts here seem rushed. The auteur remains reliant on his cliché knee-jerk comic mannerisms and plot devices. He borrows so liberally from himself that anyone familiar with his films will experience twinges of déjà vu in nearly every other scene.

Allen sets a droll comic tone for the piece by his casting of Ian McShane. Joe Strombel (McShane) is a recently deceased U.K. newspaper reporter who jumps ship from a boat that Death steers across the River Styx after discovering from a murder victim that Peter Lyman is most certainly the Tarot Card killer. There’s a literary snap to the darkly comic imagery. The girzzled McShane creates an energetic stir with his whimsical performance. Enter the bespectacled Johansson to create Woody’s gender-opposite alter ego complete with a revving libido that quickly gets watered when she beds a rock star she’s assigned to interview for her college newspaper. Sondra Pransky may not complete her first assignment, but she does get gratification.

During a night out in London, Sondra finds herself picked from the audience at Sid Waterman’s magic show to participate in a disappearing trick onstage. Once inside Waterman’s trick box Sondra finds the cramped quarters especially crampt when the ghost of Joe Strombel appears to tell Sondra that she should pursue the local serial killer story with Peter Lyman as suspect number one. Sondra returns to Waterman’s theater the next day to reenter the box in hopes of having another conversation with Joe Strombel. The old fashioned plot set up carries Allen's trademark sense of nostalgia for a bygone era. 

What follows are a series of signature Woody Allen jokes where someone is snooping around in a room they don’t belong in. Hugh Jackman gives a serviceable if unfocused performance as the smitten Peter Lyman who seduces Sondra hook, line, and sinker. Jackman’s native Australian accent creeps into his attempts at high class British intonation. The normally well grounded actor seems at times in need of more direction than Allen is willing to provide.

"Scoop" is a throwaway movie that Woody Allen seems to have dashed off. His dialogue falls flat more than it pops. The ostensibly suspenseful narrative structure is barely more than a straight predictable line. Allen is probably too stuck in his dated onscreen persona to perform in his own films anymore. With "Match Point" he showed he that could still make an inventive movie. Perhaps he should focus more on his material and less on the muse.

Rated PG-13. 96 mins. (C) (Two Stars)



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