It’s hardly a news flash that Woody Allen is no longer the filmmaker he once was; even the largely positive reaction to his last picture, “Match Point,” seemed more the result of wishful thinking on the part of many critics than actual accomplishment on his. To be sure, it was better than a lot of his recent work, but still highly flawed. Now comes “Scoop,” which shares that movie’s British location and its concern with murder and guilt but applies a comic tone to the material rather than a serious one. You might say Allen’s followed up an English-accented version of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” with one of “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” but that in each case the result is inferior to its model. And since “Murder Mystery” was mediocre in the first place, that means “Scoop” has real problems.
The flyweight script is more a loose series of riffs and coincidences than a carefully-thought out comic creation. The central figure is Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), a beautiful but somewhat goofy American journalist student vacationing with family friends in London. While volunteering in a magic act conducted by the seedy (and unaccountably successful, judging from the size of the audience) Great Splendini (Allen, here a.k.a. Sid Waterman), she’s visited by the shade of recently-deceased reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), who’s happened upon a scoop while being transported across the river Styx and has escaped back to the land of the living to tell somebody about it. The somebody happens to be Sondra, and the big story is that handsome, dashing Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), the wealthy son of Lord Lyman (Julian Glover), is the infamous Tarot Killer, a contemporary Jack the Ripper. Soon Sondra is investigating the allegation by linking up with Peter, who immediately falls for her. But she’s not alone in her research: she’s enlisted Sid, whom she passes off as her father, as a reluctant–and predictably nervous–partner.
The process of uncovering the truth, true to tell, is a lax and meandering one, notable for two elements. One is the romance-with-suspicion relationship between Sondra and Peter, which presumably is supposed to generate some tension but is flatly written and played; one only need recall what Hitchcock was able to do with this sort of thing in “Notorious” and “North by Northwest” to recognize how pallid Allen’s treatment of it is. (Murder evokes about as much human feeling here as in an Agatha Christie mystery.) And while Johansson does nicely as the combination Lucy Ricardo and Nancy Drew–coming across far better than she did as the shrewish figure of “Match Point”–Jackman makes a charmless partner. It was also a mistake for Allen to close this thread of the picture with a murder scheme suggesting that, as with “Point,” he still has Dreiser (or at least “A Place in the Sun”) on the brain. It’s never a good idea to invite comparisons unless you have a pretty good idea they won’t be detrimental.
The second big part of “Scoop” is Allen’s grumpily avuncular Sid, who provides a stream of comic commentary to the sleuthing. The role gives him the opportunity to deliver his customary shtick–the flustered demeanor and chain of drily witty observations–without, happily, portraying him as the romantic partner of a woman far younger than himself. And it allows for a clever final joke for the writer-director-star. But it remains nothing more than a device for putting what’s really a peripheral character at the center of the action to provide a showcase for what’s basically an Allen stand-up routine. (It also reveals him to be a rather ungenerous writer, since he hoards almost all the best bits of dialogue for himself.) And while a few of his lines are moderately amusing, in a second-hand way (a bit of conversation confusing trollop and Trollope is watered-down Paul Theroux, though most are reminiscent of old Allen bits), most seem forced. It also stretches credulity to presume that an inept, old-fashioned vaudevillian like Waterman could have the slightest degree of success on a London stage; if his ability to draw crowds is supposed to be a joke, we should at least be told why, since on the surface Sid seems about as adept a performer as Broadway Danny Rose was an agent.
The only other performers in “Scoop” who manage to make an impression are McShane, as the spirit who shows up without explanation far too often, and Charles Dance, playing a journalist who offers Sondra professional advice, who dashes off a ream of expository dialogue with admirably understated aplomb. On the technical level the picture is merely adequate, but Remi Adefarasin’s cinematography does make reasonably good use of the England locations; and the score, which makes use of classical snippets rather than jazz bits, is okay if not terribly imaginative.
Among Allen’s later movies “Scoop” isn’t awful, the way “Celebrity” (1998), for example, was. But like so many of his recent efforts, it’s a relatively feeble, lackadaisical piece, mildly amusing but far too reminiscent of the superior movies he made years ago and with too many dead spots. In newspaper terms, it doesn’t deserve an extra edition and would be better off buried on some inner page of the Times.