Woody Allen’s Scoop

If there is one virtue of Woody Allen’s new movie, Scoop, it is the joy of familiarity. Watching this film is like visiting a genial, if somewhat eccentric old uncle – he’s silly, he’s not all there, but you can’t help loving the guy.

Don’t get me wrong. Scoop is emphatically not one of Allen’s better movies. Frankly, it isn’t a patch on Allen’s finest. But the days of Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters, are, one suspects, long past. What Scoop is, is Allen’s funniest movie in a decade – the best piece of comic work he’s done since Deconstructing Harry back in 1997. And that, in my books, is enough to make it worth the price of the admission ticket.

Scoop starts promisingly enough[1]. Much-respected journalist Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) has died. On his ferry trip down to Hades, Joe, having unsuccessfully tried to bribe his way past Death, falls into conversation with a co-passenger and unearths a story that, if true, could be the scoop of the decade. Except, well, he’s in no position to be meeting any more deadlines is he? Desperate to get the story into the paper, Joe sneaks his way past Death and manages to pass it on to the first ‘journalist’ he can find, who happens to be young Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) – a student journalist for her school paper in Brooklyn, who is visiting friends in London and is, at the point where Joe finds her, volunteering to take part in a magic trick performed by the Sid Waterman aka The Great Splendini (Woody Allen). The task of completing the story, and bringing the Tarot Card Killer (who Joe believes is a young aristocrat named Peter Lyman, played by Hugh Jackson) to justice, now falls on the luscious shoulders of Ms. Johansson, who quickly enlists Allen’s help for the task.

So far so good. The old Allen would have gone to town on this premise. Hell, he’s done it once before, and memorably, in Manhattan Murder Mystery. The current Allen only manages to get to the suburbs. From this point on the script quickly deteriorates, becoming rapidly improbable and illogical, and consistently missing every opportunity to create dramatic tension or suspense that the plot has to offer. Ms. Johansson meets the suspected killer and promptly falls in love with him (hey, he’s stunningly handsome, charming and rich – what’s not to love?). Even more amazingly, he seems to be attracted to her (okay, so she’s gawky and wierd, but boy, can she fill out a red swimsuit). One hour of incredibly incompetent but pleasantly bumbling ‘investigation’ later, the truth finally comes out, and everything is finally put right (well, almost everything). The fact that the story that plays out is about as full of holes as a piece of swiss cheese, is undeniable, but the story is so flimsy that after the first half hour you’ve stopped noticing. Hitchcock this certainly ain’t, though, and if you’re watching this film for the dramatic suspense, you should walk out after the trailers.

If this film is an achievement at all, it’s because it makes so entirely hokey a plot seem untaxing. This is an easy-going film, one that lulls you into a sense of casual well-being. If it works, it is because it makes almost no claim on you – it is neither a thrilling murder mystery, nor a deep exploration of philosophical themes, nor a work of startling comic genius. There is little pretense that there is anything particularly original here, Allen seems to be perfectly frank about the fact that he’s having a little harmless fun (which let’s face it, he’s entitled to) and you’re welcome to watch if you like.

Perhaps the best bit of the movie, for Allen fans, is the man’s return to the screen. The credits for the film will tell you that Allen is playing Sid Waterman. This is a lie. Allen is playing Allen – only an older version of Allen – more senile, more cantankerous, more eccentric. And, thankfully, an Allen who no longer bothers to pretend that he might have chemistry with the young and female. Not only is the plot irrelevant to Allen’s performance here, the character he’s playing is too. Allen, thinly disguised as Waterman, meanders about doing his own thing, cracking plenty of chuckle-worthy one-liners, giving us a full dose of all the usual Allen tics and mannerisms, and generally being his familiar funny self. A good half of Scoop is just Allen doing extremely lifelike impressions of himself. That can get annoying if you’re actually interested in the movie, but because the plot is ridiculous anyway and you pretty much already know what’s going to happen, you’re fairly content to scrunch down on your seat and let him have fun with it.

The other performances are mediocre. Johansson is tentative and uneven – she comes across as someone who has the potential to be a serious actress, but keeps reminding herself that she’s supposed to be playing an awkward schoolgirl. The result is a performance that’s half astute, half ditsy and entirely uncompelling. It’s not just that there are no shades of grey to Johansson’s performance – she’s either infatuated with the man, or desperate to nail him for his crime. It’s also that there’s no sense of emotional engagement on her part at all – she seems neither particularly excited about pursuing the scoop of a lifetime, nor dramatically passionate about her blossoming relationship with Jackman. Instead of getting a character torn between two points of view, we get a character who seems largely disinterested in both. Jackman is adequate, but he doesn’t really have much to do, except look good, which he does with aplomb.

Overall then, Scoop is, at best, a mildly amusing farce, peppered with some sharp one-liners, but entirely lacking in comic momentum. If you’re looking to be astounded, this is certainly not the film to watch. But if you’re looking for an hour and a half’s worth of light, pleasing entertainment, something that will pass the time and that you won’t need to be too engaged in, then this may be just the thing. Even extremely mediocre Woody Allen is, after all, funnier and cleverer than much of the crap that mainstream Hollywood dishes out. And if you’re a Woody Allen fan, and enjoy watching his onscreen persona, you’ll probably relish the opportunity to watch him revisit his old gags. He’s not quite the Allen we used to worship, but there’s life in the old boy yet.

[1] Since no reviewer can write a review of Scoop without mentioning Match Point, let me say that it’s interesting how even the progression of quality in the two movies is reversed. Match Point (which I reviewed here) improves as the film plays out – the first half is barely watchable, the second half is compelling. Scoop goes the other way – it promises much early on, but soon loses momentum.