Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen's latest, a London-based murder mystery/screwball comedy, is a welcome return to form for the New York Yankee in Queen Elizabeth's court.
King of Spades
A slight confection, Scoop is an entertaining little movie in which Allen finally, after going astray with his most recent comedies, gets a lot of things right again. Instead of casting himself as the highly unlikely object of desire for so many hot, sexy young starlets, as he did in the disastrous Hollywood Ending, Allen plays it a little more realistically. Through a series of wild circumstances, he gets roped into pretending to be the father of the hot, sexy young starlet.
In this case, the hot, sexy young starlet is Scarlett Johansson (Girl With a Pearl Earring) playing Sondra Pransky, a journalism student who stumbles upon a murder mystery while attending a magic show by the magnificent Splendini (the one and only Woody Allen).
Splendini, also known as Sidney Waterman, is a hack magician who performs stunningly cheesy tricks. OK, his card tricks are pretty neat and there's also that trick in which he makes a member of the audience disappear. His next "volunteer" is sweet, not-so-innocent Sondra. (Within minutes of the movie's start, she had already tipped a few too many drinks and slept with a popular movie director in pursuit of a school-newspaper interview with him).
While in the magic box from which Splendini makes her disappear, Sondra encounters the spirit of Joe Strombel (Ian McShane, TV's Deadwood). A recently deceased newspaper reporter, Strombel , while being ferried by the Grim Reaper himself, met a woman with irrefutable knowledge that Peter Lyman (yes, the Peter Lyman, son of Lord Lyman) was the Tarot Card Killer, a serial killer with a fetish for short-haired brunettes.
Determined to get one last scoop, Joe's spirit makes it back to the physical world, hitting on the vibe of Sondra's budding journalistic talents. (This is a Woody Allen movie, after all.)
The best part of Scoop is Johansson. After starring in Allen's London-based drama Match Point last year, she has taken on all the tics and neuroses of Woody Allen himself; she's quite enjoyable as she fidgets, blinks, and goes into long, painfully detailed personal stories about how she dropped her dental-hygienist ambitions to pursue her dream as a journalist.
But it also has to be said that Woody Allen isn't half-bad, either. His wit is back as he delivers classic Woody-isms about how he was raised in the Hebrew faith but converted to narcissism and how he never gains weight because he's always so anxious.
Allen loves London; much has been written in the press about that topic. But it's clearly a London seen through Allen's pop-bottle eyeglasses. New York is Allen's hometown; in London he's still an outsider, a recent comer who hasn't fully integrated into the yin and yang of British life. As such, Allen takes this opportunity to pick the low-lying fruit of obvious cultural — and social class — differences for many of his jokes.
Even so, while sauntering through fancy parties and mingling with the upper crust as Sidney and Sondra attempt to entrap their high society killer, Allen still manages some sharp cracks that artfully reflect the differences between British and New Yorker life by making loose references to a Rubens painting (British high society) and a Reuben sandwich (work-a-day New York life). Sidney praises the English people and his experiences living in London, but his two major gripes are still the obvious: driving on the wrong side of the road and that nearly insurmountable language barrier.
Queen of Hearts
As for Sondra, she's every bit as quirky. After a number of narrative contortions, Sondra manages to land a date with Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman, X-Men: The Last Stand). She wants to expose him as the Tarot Card Killer and prove Joe's apparition was correct, but she winds up falling for Peter's smooth, luxurious advances. She even pays him the ultimate compliment by saying, "You have wonderful enamel."
OK, she's a lovely young lady in London being wooed by a filthy rich pretty boy. Still, it's a little hard to buy into her romance with Peter and why he'd be so head over heels for her. They have nothing in common but their good looks.
Scoop drags in spots and feels longer than its 96-minute running time. Allen lunges and lurches to a couple false stops before finally reaching the fairly obvious ending.
However, this is a Woody Allen comedy, so the whole murder storyline takes a back seat to the fun of seeing Allen resurrect his wit and rattle off loads of quotable jokes and jabs.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.