Hardly more ambitious or painstaking an effort than his casual magazine essays, Woody Allen's new comedic film, Scoop, will be lucky to inspire more than a few scant shouts and murmurs.
A young American journalism student (Scarlett Johansson) visits a magic show while studying abroad in England. When the magician Splendini (Woody Allen) stows her away inside a box for his grand finale, Johansson is visited by the ghost of recently deceased journalist (Ian McShane), who implores her to follow up on a juicy tip he picked up on the ferry across the River Styx. It would seem that one of London's most respected, and most attractive, young noblemen (Hugh Jackman) may indeed be the secret identity of a notorious serial killer. Intent on getting the story, but unsure of her own abilities, Johansson quickly enlists Allen in her quest to get the story.
Don't expect much. It's a flip, disposable movie with a slack, disjointed script and lightly sketched charactersâ€”a tossed-off take on classic romantic mysteries like His Girl Friday and The Thin Man.
But slack and quickly castoff is a fair way to describe all of Allen's work. Like his best films, Scoop succeeds when it yields center stage to the subject its director knows best: himself. Even at the age of 70, Allen can still capture your attention with his outrageous anxieties and gleefully nihilistic vaudeville. His banter with Johansson offers a low-wattage version of the urbane repartee that illuminates the male-female detective comedies Allen is out to imitate, but the roles are as ill-fitting to their players as dowdy glasses to Johansson's face. It's pathetic to see a beautiful woman pretend to be ordinary, and it's shameful for such a talented filmmaker to shy away from exercising his strengths. What it leads to is dull film with a few small pleasures, but almost neurotic in its self-repression.
Despite the waves of empathy and adoration Johansson drew from young cinephiles and intellectuals with her minor-key performance in Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation, it remains to be seen whether she can summon performances to match her ascendant stardom. Without a doubt, she's lost here, wandering unconvincingly through her paces as Allen's cross between Nancy Drew and Hildy Johnson. It's hard not to wonder whether her career would be better suited if she let her body do the talking instead of a voice that, for all its husky allure, she has yet to master.
One of the more interesting developments of this film is Allen's newfound role as father figure to his female lead. His critics have been happy to take the opportunity to underline their relief that he's finally relinquished a romantic role (Mahnola Dargis of The New York Times damns Scoop with the faint praise that it has less pawing of young women than any Allen film in years). While we all need a good vent from time to time, it would be nice to see such bile saved for the people who deserve it, like the cynical liars and swill merchants who brought us the crime against enlightenment known as The DaVinci Code. A harmless old comedian playing out his fantasies seems such small game in comparison. Raising the blunt power of the press against so slight a film seems as cruel and unnecessary as robbing children of the pleasures they find in Splendini's simple magic tricks.