‘Scoop’: Shades of Nick and Nora, With Woody Allen’s Shtick
28-07-06 Suggested by: Jack of all Trades
By Manohla Dargis
In 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 the new one revisits a number of Mr. 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 Ms. Johansson and the announcement that Mr. 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. Mr. Allen doesn’t manhandle Ms. Johansson, though his camera tends to linger appreciatively over her form. In her role as Sondra Pransky, an American journalism student in London, Ms. 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 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.
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 — presto, changeo — walks out with a 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, a k a Sid Waterman (Mr. 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.
Mr. 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. Mr. Allen’s invocation of the “Thin Man” films in an interview makes sense, even if he’s no William Powell and Ms. Johansson is certainly no . “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. Mr. 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. It not only removes the distracting “eew” factor, it also allows him to settle into a more paternal role, which he does with persuasive naturalness.
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.
That Mr. Allen has opted to share the limelight with an actress he is content to look at but not touch adds an interesting kink to what may be an entire new chapter in his life’s work. Just barely out of her teens, Ms. Johansson has yet to learn how to control either the husk in her voice or that lovely lush body, which makes for moments both charmingly awkward and just awkward. Mr. Allen is a famously reticent director, at least when it comes to his actors, who often seem to direct themselves. Ms. Johansson’s performance is all over the place in “Scoop,” but finally works for a film that is itself all over the place. Mr. Allen seems happy to just watch her strut her stuff, and after a while so are we.
“Scoop” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). There’s a murder subplot, but it’s all very gentle.
Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Maria Djurkovic; produced by Letty Aronson and Gareth Wiley; released by Focus Features. Running time: 96 minutes.
WITH: Woody Allen (Sid Waterman), Hugh Jackman (Peter Lyman), Scarlett Johansson (Sondra Pransky) and Ian McShane (Joe Strombel).
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