Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) is a lowly college newspaper reporter in London for the summer visiting her friends. Brought onstage by washed-up magician Sid Waterman (Woody Allen) one night during his act, Sondra is visited by the spirit of a famous journalist (Ian McShane) while inside one of Sid’s “magic” boxes. Given the scoop of a lifetime on the possible identity of the famous tarot card serial killer by the apparition, Sondra, with Sid in tow, tries to infiltrate the aristocratic life of Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), only to find a romantic entanglement with the gentleman puts a damper on her efforts to incriminate him.
Woody Allen struck dramatic pay dirt earlier this year with “Match Point,” a deftly made thriller that turned out to be the biggest hit the writer/director has had in years. The change in scenery from New York to London has certainly put some spring back into Allen’s step, and his follow-up, “Scoop,” might not have the laser aim of “Point,” but I’ll take even a mild effort from Allen these days.
“Scoop” is a more successful comedy than Allen’s been achieving recently; it’s the filmmaker looking to be goofy again, after being afraid of it in films such as “Melinda and Melinda,” and the career low point, “Anything Else.” In terms of a laugh count, “Scoop” doesn’t exactly set the theater on fire, but it has a balanced rhythm to it that is Allen-reliable and quite comforting.
“Scoop” is more schticky than witty, putting the burden on Allen to come up with spiky jokes and swift retorts. As the tepid magician Waterman, Allen is always there with a punch line, but his age is showing the fatigue in his once blinding mental spark. Regardless, when Allen sits down to make people laugh, there’s magic in the frame, and when the picture focuses on Waterman’s card tricks and achingly rehearsed audience patter, the hoots follow.
With Hugh Jackman’s delightful, but let’s be honest here, easy lay-up performance as a handsome mad chick (perhaps) killer, and Allen doing what he was born to do, the odd duck here is Johansson. As with almost every production where Allen declines the lead role, there must be a stand-in, and Johansson is his strangest replacement. It takes some screentime to get accustomed to the actress trying her best Allen impression out, but once the story starts to deepen, so does an appreciation of the sheer bravery involved in the acting; Johansson never breaks character, and she matches Allen, if not in the laugh department, in speed and dedication.
Somewhat like “Match Point,” “Scoop” starts to turn ever so slightly into a murder mystery as it starts to descend. It’s truly a matter of personal opinion at this point whether or not you care whodunit, but it speaks of Allen’s reliable direction that the picture doesn’t completely derail with its subtle twist in tone. “Scoop” doesn’t pack a wallop, but it runs efficiently. For a Woody Allen picture, that’s all you need to feel satisfied.Rating: B