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Scoop (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 28 July 2006
Watching Woody Allen’s “Scoop,” I laughed a lot. I found his typical Woodyallen shtick entertaining, and very welcome after a long absence. I thought the situation was interesting, that the supporting cast, primarily Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman, were amusing and charming. And then I find that “Scoop” has been getting some of the worst reviews of Allen’s career. I scratch my head in puzzlement.

Like “Match Point,” “Scoop” is set (and shot) in England; also like that movie, the plot here somewhat echoes Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” (or more likely movie buff Allen is drawing from “A Place in the Sun,” George Stevens’ movie of the Dreiser novel). However, this time the story is a comedy, not a drama.

It’s told the same way, of course; most of his career, as a director Allen has adhered to very much the same style-less style. The story is told in simple, direct scenes, each of which makes its point then gets out of the way. The visual style is simple with relatively few closeups. Allen wants us to perceive the story, not his technique. This simple but rigorous clarity has worked well for him for many years, although I for one am not fond of his recent decision to give the films a kind of golden ambiance.

London investigative reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane, lately on “Deadwood”), has died and his friends hold him a cheerful wake. Then we see Joe on a boat of the recently departed, borne across water (the River Styx?) by a Grim Reaper at its head. (I guess it’s Death himself.) Joe falls into conversation with a fellow passenger, who says she’s sure she was murdered by her wealthy, upper-crust boss Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman). She had come to suspect he’s the serial murderer, the Tarot Killer, who’s been terrorizing London. Excited at the idea of one last scoop, Joe jumps overboard, which evidently allows him to show up on Earth.

In London, Splendini the Magician (Woody Allen) is doing his (very) well-rehearsed act for a mildly interested audience. When he calls for a volunteer, American Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) steps forward. Splendini goes through his dusty old routine, learning Sondra’s a journalism student. We’ve already seen her try to get an interview with a movie director, but only wind up sleeping with him.

Splendini, whose real name is Sid Waterman, puts Sondra in his magical booth—and there’s Joe Strombel’s spirit. Joe urges Sondra to follow up on the information concerning Lyman, to make a name for herself by landing Joe’s from-beyond-the-grave scoop.
Enthusiastically, Sondra engages Sid’s help in trying to meet the very uppercrust Lyman; he’s the son of Lord Lyman (Julian Glover), and a well-known playboy. Through shenanigans at a swimming pool, she does arrange to meet Peter, who’s charming and very interested in her. She impulsively passes herself off as Jade Juliard Spence, and Sid as her father, an oil baron. Sid leaps so deeply into the role, while still chattering on, that she later has to order him “stop telling people I sprang from your loins.”

The story is a little schematic, somewhat limited, but it gets the job done. The ending feels contrived, but Johansson is so effective in it that she rides right over all objections. At other times, she’s a little uncertain, but never anything less than appealing and charming.

But the most entertaining aspect of the movie is Woody Allen stepping back into the classic Woody Allen mold. No, there’s nothing new here; he stammers and stutters and keeps on pouring out the New York Jewish line. At a fashionable party, he claims “I was born into the Hebrew persuasion byt when I got older I converted to narcissism.” However, somewhat thankfully, there’s not the slightest hit of any sexual attraction between the young woman and this older, scruffy-looking guy—the lack of this is rare in a Woody Allen movie, but this is a position it’s about time he reached.

The story avoids inconveniences—Sondra is staying with relatively wealthy friends, and seem sto have enough money of her own. It looks as though Splendini (a very funny name for Allen) can skip as many performances as he wishes without being fired.

Woody has dabbled in the supernatural before, as with “Alice” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” but he treats it as matter-of-factly as he does everything else in his films. He isn’t interested in wowing audiences with tricks, with visual delights, but instead wants just to tell his stories as straightforwardly as possible, with casts who have been carefully chosen.

“Chosen” isn’t a major Woody Allen movie; it’s on a level with “Manhattan Murder Mystery” or “Bullets Over Broadway.” Not top-grade Allen, but pleasant, relaxing and familiar fun.

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