We Are Not a Muse'd

Washington City Paper | July 28, 2006
Dating is a bit riskier in Scoop, in which a student journalist seduces a man she suspects is a serial killer. This is Woody Allen’s second film to be set in London’s posh neighborhoods and even posher suburbs, but it’s been cobbled together from previous Allen fairy tales of New York, mostly Manhattan Murder Mystery and Broadway Danny Rose, with a bit of Deconstructing Harry mixed in. The result is conceptually fatigued, even when the writer-director’s current muse, Scarlett Johansson, is on-screen being all blonde and stuff.

Johansson plays Sondra Pransky, an American college student who doesn’t seem to have a very good reason to be spending the summer in Great Britain. Her sojourn coincides with the death of crusading journalist Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), who is soon glimpsed in the Underworld. While on the river Styx, Strombel gets a tip that young aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the notorious Tarot Card Killer. This is too good a story to take to oblivion, so Strombel fights his way back. His spirit materializes in an onstage box with Sondra, who’s participating in a cheesy vanishing trick by old-style American magician Splendini (Allen). Strombel blurts a bit of the story, and soon Sondra is in pursuit of Lyman, with Splendini—real name: Sid Waterman—as her old man Friday.

What follows is part Agatha Christie, part Albert Brooks. Sondra contrives to meet Peter and is soon in bed with him. (To judge from Scoop and Thank You for Smoking, Hollywood thinks this is how women journalists report stories.) Sondra falls for Peter’s charm and moneyed lifestyle even as she unearths clues that suggest he might be indeed a murderer, if perhaps not the Tarot Card Killer. Meanwhile, Splendini tags along, delivering jokes whose joke is that they’re not remotely funny. These cracks are so feeble that it’s hard to tell when they’re just pointless asides and when they’re actually supposed to contribute to the exposition, such as it is. The movie’s elementary plot probably wouldn’t have worked anytime after the silent-film era, which would be fine if Allen were to distract us from the story with trenchant cross-cultural observations. Instead, he gripes about driving on the wrong side of the road.

London seemed to invigorate Allen in the first half of Match Point, although that Dostoevski-inspired film eventually lost its bearings. In Scoop, the transatlantic setting is mere camouflage for the director’s exhausted shtick. He may be playing surrogate grandfathers these days, but he’s still trying to wheedle his way into ingénues’ hearts the way he did in his Diane Keaton period, a tactic that has become increasingly creepy. It no longer matters whether Allen’s inspiration is Russian literature or Catskills burlesque; his real subject is the slow death of a wisecracking ladies’ man.

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