Enduring filmmaker Woody Allen, who landed in a bit of a rut after 2000's irresistible "Small Time Crooks
" with a lineup of mediocrity (2001's "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
," 2002's "Hollywood Ending
," 2003's "Anything Else
," 2005's "Melinda and Melinda
"), regained his footing with 2005's provocative drama "Match Point
." For the first time in his career, the central setting switched from New York City to London, and with the change in address seemed to come a rejuvenated creativity for the auteur. His latest project, "Scoop," returns him to his comic rootsa landscape where the characters never met a clever barb or sharp one-liner they didn't like. The film isn't on the same level as his best comedies of decades pastthe unoriginal story admittedly throws together random elements from numerous earlier Allen moviesbut it's spry, whimsical and frequently laugh-out-loud funny.
When visiting American and aspiring college journalist Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) is chosen from the audience to participate in an act for magician Sid Waterman (Woody Allen), she is paid an unexpected visit from deceased ace reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) while locked in a box. It seems Joe, while being led by boat to the Afterlife, has fallen onto some convincing evidence that respected aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the mysterious Tarot Card Killer who is currently terrorizing London. Thunderstruck by the supernatural encounter and convinced that breaking this murder case could be her ticket to a prosperous journalistic career, Sondra enlists the dubious help of Sid. As these two dippy amateur gumshoes set out to find evidence linking Peter to the killingsand Sondra simultaneously finds herself romantically drawn to the handsome possible culpritit becomes clear that their investigation will be more difficult than expected.
"Scoop" is sure to rate as a relative blip on writer-director Woody Allen's extensive résumé, but even as a minor effort the film is a crafty, quick-witted confection that goes down with the ease of ice water on a balmy summer day. The plot threads have been often touched on before by Allenthe humor-laced investigation is reminiscent of 1993's "Manhattan Murder Mystery" and the magic act as initial catalyst was done in "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
" for examplebut the inadequacies in originality are a small price to pay for the barrage of priceless zingers and asides he throws the viewer's way. Indeed, the tart dialogue and cheerily argumentative back-and-forth camaraderie that develops between Sondra and Sid ("If we put our
heads together, you'll hear a hollow noise," Sondra sarcastically tells Sid at one point) are the real reasons "Scoop" is worth seeing.
Having co-starred in "Match Point
" and now getting the lead in "Scoop," Woody Allen's new muse would seem to be Scarlett Johansson (2003's "Lost in Translation
"). It's easy to see why. Johansson is a young actress of only twenty-one whose effervescence and range is awe-inspiring, nearly unparalleled by other performers in her age range. Her partially daft, partially savvy, partially sex-craved Sondra Pransky is the kind of unforgettable female role Allen has a particular talent in crafting, and Johansson is more than up to the task of filling it. Usually acting in downbeat or at least introspective parts, Johansson embarks on a new side of her career and gets to show off just how naturally funny she can be.
Meanwhile, Woody Allen could play Sid Waterman in his sleep. He is the archetypical Allen characternebbish, neurotic, quirky and privy to stuttering his way toward a showstopping wisecrackbut the actor side of him does it so well that it's tough to quibble. He and Johansson are such a joyful onscreen team that they single-handedly save the rest of the film from getting bogged down in a plot that, when it's not going anywhere special, wavers toward the threadbare. Finally, Hugh Jackman (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand
") is good at playing the suave Peter Lyman, the is-he-or-isn't-he Tarot Card Killer, but doesn't have much of a chance to join in with Johansson and Allen on the fun.
With the exception of a last-scene development that is a little too dark for its lightweight tone, where "Scoop" ultimately leads is predictable. That's not the point, though, nor does it concern Woody Allen. Instead, the focus is appropriately placed on the punchline of each scene, as Sid and Sondra scurry about trying to crack a mysterythey eventually go so far as to pose as father-daughter gold and silver tycoonswithout the know-how to equal their ambitions. And, even with the laughs-per-minute ratio decreasing the longer the film goes on, it is still one of the purely funnier comedies of the last few months. "Scoop" is about as deep as a plastic kiddie pool, but its loopy eager-to-please charm is considerable.