Woody Allen has become Dr. Moreau. Prolific as he is, he doesn’t really make new movies anymore, he creates hybrids that recombine parts of his previous brainchildren. Just seven months ago, we saw Match Point, which was Crimes and Misdemeanors transplanted to London, with a younger cast and with the comic subplot pared away. Now we have Scoop, which is Match Point redone as a comedy, with a large helping of Broadway Danny Rose and a bit of Manhattan Murder Mystery. At least he picked three of his better movies to cannibalize. Scoop is very slight, like most of Allen’s recent work, but it’s also effortlessly entertaining, loaded with the one-liners and sight gags that marked the Early Funny Woody Allen Movies Everyone Loved.
IT’S SLIGHT: but loaded with the one-liners and sight gags everybody loves.
Once again, we’re in the London of Match Point, with titled rich folks, country houses, and Scarlett Johansson falling in love with someone who may want to kill her. She’s Sondra, a Brooklyn-born aspiring journalist vacationing in London. Called onto the stage as a volunteer during a performance by second-rate magician Sidney “Splendini” Waterman (Allen), Sondra steps into his cabinet and encounters something truly supernatural: the ghost of legendary reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane). Joe has a potential career-making scoop for Sondra: prominent young aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) may be the serial murderer known as the Tarot Card Killer. (Joe, who recently died of a heart attack, heard the story from a fellow passenger on the River Styx, Lyman’s late secretary, who believes her boss poisoned her when she learned too much.) Reappearing frequently, like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, Joe annoys Sidney and Sondra into following up his otherworldly leads. Sondra insinuates herself into the life of the handsome and wealthy Peter, who is in turn charmed by her good looks and dithering manner. But then she falls in love with him, and that not only makes her doubt her investigation but also may put her life at risk. Sidney and Joe both begin to take a fatherly interest in her (strictly fatherly, thank goodness).
Whether Peter is the killer is irrelevant, of course; the point is for Allen to keep this jury-rigged gag machine running. That he does so is largely a testament to his rapport with Johansson. Sidney is another Broadway Danny Rose, a shabby show-biz anachronism, and his bickering banter with Sondra recalls the squabbles of Allen and Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery. But Johansson is a rare creature in Allenland. Not only does she bring some much-needed youth and vitality, but she’s also an unusual Allen protagonist, a young woman plagued by self-doubt (a running gag refers to her fear that she should have become a dental hygienist like her sister) who’s astonished to discover her own reserves of resourcefulness. It’s fun to watch this usually precocious and poised actress play someone who’s a bit of a nerd.
Johansson holds the screen; it’s her show, and everyone else sits back and does his or her thing. Jackman coasts on his charm, McShane on a boozy charisma redolent of the English and Irish lions (Burton, O’Toole, Harris) who preceded him by just a few years. As for Allen, it’s a treat to see him in a fresher environment, bouncing comic ideas off fresher faces, instead of making one more farce about aging Manhattan chatterati. Don’t feel you have to come home anytime soon, Woody.