In Scoop, his not especially funny yet oddly appealing new comedy, Woody Allen manages to act his age and prove there's life in those old jokes yet. Like his last outing, the pitch-black drama Match Point, the new one revisits a number of Allen's favorite themes, including money, conscience and luscious young women ripe for the plucking, this time for laughs. As in the earlier film, Scarlett Johansson plays the succulent morsel, though with a performance set in the key of screwball rather than noir. Her sweaters are looser, as is her smile. The film, in turn, is positively slack, which turns out to be one of its virtues.
The casting of Johansson and the announcement that Allen would return to the front of the camera were worrisome. He had stayed out of sight for Match Point, which was largely sold on its leads and its enthusiastic reviews. The name of its writer and director was conspicuously played down in the advertisements, the consequence of the string of flops he had lately churned out. With its fierce performances and writing, Match Point proved very much a return to fine form, if not for the comic Woody Allen, then for the serious Woody Allen, the one who didn't try to hide his misanthropy, his fear and his loathing behind jokes and shtick. Another plus: he wasn't in the film groping the starlet.
Relax. Allen doesn't manhandle Johansson, though his camera tends to linger appreciatively over her form. In her role as Sondra Pransky, an American journalism student in London, Johansson tends to wear roomy, almost dowdy clothes, the exception being a screaming-red maillot that she fills out beautifully, bringing to mind Cathy Moriarty baking under the sun and Robert De Niro's hotter gaze in Raging Bull. Sondra is more the Nancy Drew type, particularly when dressed and wearing her glasses, though she is also the kind of girl reporter who thinks nothing of sleeping with her interviewees to get the story. Nancy Drew probably didn't go past first base, but neither did she chase ghosts and aristocrats while running with a magician called Splendini.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF SWALLOW WINGS
The premise of Scoop sounds like the windup to a joke: a journalist walks into a magician's trick closet, where she meets an actual ghost, and walks out with the news lead of a lifetime. The ghost, a recently deceased journalist, Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), believing he knows the identity of a serial killer on the hunt, gives Sondra the scoop. This, in turn, leads to an affectionately testy partnership with Splendini, aka Sid Waterman (Allen, of course), and, through some twists and turns, to Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), an aristocrat who enters the thick of things after making an acquaintance with that screaming-red bathing suit. None of it makes much sense, but, like slackness, nonsense proves a virtue here.
Allen doesn't seem to be working terribly hard in Scoop, and while that makes for some apparent goofs and lots of ragged edges, it gives the whole thing a pleasantly carefree vibe. After the first 20 or so clunky minutes, the film settles into a groove and then, ever so slightly, deepens. Allen's invocation of the Thin Man films in an interview makes sense, even if he's no William Powell and Johansson is certainly no Myrna Loy. Scoop was made by someone who understands that what makes the Thin Man series enduring isn't whodunit and why, but the way Nick and Nora look at each other as they sip their martinis, Asta nipping at their heels.
Sondra and Sid do all the nipping here, playfully tossing insults at each other. Allen's apparent realization, at long last, that neither his diehard fans nor more agnostic viewers want to watch him paw a much younger woman does wonders.
More important, it also means Scoop isn't just another one of those narcissistic revues in which a Woody Allen-like character, sometimes played by the filmmaker himself, sometimes by an unsettling surrogate (Kenneth Branagh, Will Ferrell and so on), gobbles up the screen, the woman, our attention and our presumed love. In Scoop he has to share, and he does.
DIRECTED BY: Woody Allen
STARRING: Woody Allen (Sid Waterman), Hugh Jackman (Peter Lyman), Scarlett Johansson (Sondra Pransky), Ian McShane (Joe Strombel)
RUNNING TIME: 96 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
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