Woody Allen has picked the wrong muse for his comeback. In fairness, no one could ever really fill Diane Keaton’s shoes. She brought out a warmth in Allen as a performer that his other costars did not. The rambling byplay that is the staple of all of Allen’s dialogue flowed smoothly between Keaton and Allen. Muse number two, Mia Farrow was strictly hit or miss (and more often miss than hit). Now, in Allen’s twilight years, he’s gone ex-pat on us (funding with artistic freedom has taken him to London) and he’s taking Scarlett Johansson along for the ride. If only she were up to the task.
Scoop, Allen’s second London-based film starring Johansson, is in many ways a comic inversion of his last outing, the rich and dark Match Point. It has many similar elements: deceit, infidelity, class and culture differences, but it shrugs off the lush melodrama in favor of screwball comedy wackiness. Sondra (Johansson) is a plucky American journalist desperate for a good story for her school newspaper. One evening, at magic show fronted by Sidney Waterman (Allen), she is visited by the ghost of a recently deceased ace journalist named Joe Strombel (Ian McShane). Strombel tells Sondra that he suspects that dashing Brit nobleman Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) may be the “Tarot Card Killer” who’s been murdering prostitutes in London over the past two years. What ensues is a lame caper comedy with absolutely no momentum.
Allen’s writing is sloppy and the characters and situations are never remotely credible. His cast includes a wealth of Brit talent who are squandered by Allen’s lack of character and plot development. At a mere ninety-six minutes, it feels long and labored and Allen’s comic dialogue only sparingly hits the bull’s-eye. Too many jokes hit the floor and lay there dying as other casualties pile on top of them. By the end of the film, the audience is exhausted from the effort of trying to meet Allen halfway.
Johansson, who was the only debit to the otherwise great ensemble of Match Point, is even more lost here. She tries hard, VERRRRY hard, to be believable as a plucky, somewhat dorky student (an energy effortlessly tapped by Jennifer Garner in her adorable turn in 13 Going on 30), but in the end the performance just feels fake. Her acting is amateurish and while Allen tries nobly to engage her in his neurotic banter, she consistently misses the mark. In fairness, Allen can’t quite decide who Sondra is and at least part of Johansson’s failure rests on his shoulders.
As necessitated by the plot, Jackman’s character must be kept at a distance to keep the audience wondering whether he is guilty or innocent. As a result, Mr. Wolverine only functions as a kind of handsome set dressing. He’s charming, in a generic sort of way, but he has absolutely no chemistry with Johansson, and his performance is thoroughly one-dimensional.
Deadwood’s McShane trades his trademark four-letter gruffness for a kind of suave panache that (like all of the other potential in this film) is flushed down the toilet. The ghost story is hackneyed and never really works. Furthermore, McShane’s fleeting role offers him precious little screen time, which is a shame. In a better version of this story, it might have been interesting to see the hardened newsman break in the cub reporter. Instead, Johansson’s running mate is Allen, whose attachment to Sondra is also tenuously constructed at best. For those who find his persona irritating, this film will do little to alter their opinion. Allen’s whole shtick feels tired and malnourished, though he works admirably to try to make it come together.
Scoop takes everything that was fresh in Match Point and hoses it down with the same overused, undernourished humor that has plagued Allen’s filmmaking for the last decade. The idea of Allen find a new city in which to nurture his trademark anxiety is full of potential, but until he stops leaning on his old trademarks and finds a new bag of tricks, that potential will never be realized.
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