Allen should have concluded his expatriate foray with Match Point. The second straight film hes made in London an alleged return to comedy called Scoop is so flat, dull, and off-form that it seems to have been conceived in a fog. It not only lacks the verve and energy of Allens best New York-based work, it feels culturally adrift, like some bewildered tourist trying to read a city map held upside down. For years, even some of the staunchest Allen fans have suspected that his best days are behind him. But when his famously neurotic one-liners start to bomb, theres real trouble. At the very least, the filmmaker might have borrowed some of the brilliant mischief of this movies vastly superior namesake, written by the great British satirist Evelyn Waugh. Alas, he doesnt.
The latest object of Allens affections at least in the dramatic realm is the nubile Scarlett Johansson, who portrayed a demanding, self-absorbed actress in Match Point and returns here as Sondra Pransky, a naive American journalism student whos visiting a friend in London when she inadvertently stumbles onto what may turn out to be the murder scandal of the decade. The bespectacled Sondras reportorial skills are limited, to say the least, but shes not above a bit of feminine wile. Make what you will of Scoops first scene: The heroine pursues into a London hotel lobby a horny movie director whos about three times her age and, instead of getting an interview, lands in his bed. If, in Allens scheme of things, wishful thinking here merges with autobiography, so be it. Its a bit tougher to accept the filmmakers appearance in Scoop as a professional magician named Splendini, who specializes in de-materializing women by means of a double-paneled box. Here is Allen as stammering self-parody; a pent-up bundle of tics and quirks so irritating that, halfway through, you may feel like ending the misery (his, and yours) by clamping an ether-soaked rag over that long-beloved old face.
As it is, Splendini a.k.a. Sid Waterman, an old-fashioned vaudevillian to the bone becomes the unwitting agent of Sondra Pranskys investigative and romantic adventures. Plucked from the audience and secreted away in his magic box, the young woman is unexpectedly accosted there by a renowned (albeit recently deceased) London newspaperman named Joe Strombel (Deadwoods foul-mouthed Ian McShane). Frustrated that he can no longer get the story himself, the avuncular Joe puts Sondra on the trail of a suave nobleman named Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), whom the dead reporter insists is Londons new version of Jack the Ripper, an elusive monster known to the Fleet Street tabloids as the Tarot Card Killer. Like Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam, canny Joe becomes the protagonists guide and mentor from beyond the grave.
As if this supernatural turn of plot were not familiar enough, Allen also insists on having Sondra posing now as Jade Spence fall in love with the dashing and possibly dangerous Peter even as she snoops into his secrets. In a goofier development, she also recruits the reluctant Sid to play the part of her father, Mr. Spence, whos quickly drawn into the chase. The notion of a phobia-rattled Jew from New York dropped into the staid Protestant garden parties of upper-crust London could have provided Allen with one of his richest comic spectacles. But he doesnt make much of it beyond attacking the buffet table and startling the guests with a couple of ancient card tricks. I was of the Hebrew persuasion, Sid says of his origins, but I converted to narcissism. Thats about the pinnacle in the wisecrack department, and as far as pursuing the suspected killer goes, the director did that in much funnier fashion back on home turf in Manhattan Murder Mystery.
In the end, the semi-dimwitted Sondra gets her man, and Sid Waterman winds up, like Joe Strombel, in limbo here portrayed as a tramp steamer adrift on a fog-shrouded sea standing among a group of baffled passengers who are wondering where theyre headed, and why. Given the inertia of Scoop and the uncertain course of Allens career as it enters twilight, its an appropriate final image.