The most captivating, congenial and consistently charming film of the year — well, along with Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion — Woody Allen’s Scoop marks a return to form for the filmmaker.
It also marks a similar return for Allen’s detractors, who have come out in force to kvetch that it’s not like his recent film Match Point and that it’s “just another Woody Allen movie.” The first statement is certainly undeniable, but since Match Point strikes me as a low point in Allen’s career, I don’t consider that a bad thing. The second observation is more or less true and so what? It could be said that The Paleface (1948) is just another Bob Hope picture or that A Day at the Races (1937) is just another Marx Brothers movie and so on. You don’t hear Bob Hope or the Marxes or Chaplin or Keaton being attacked for making the kind of movie and playing the kind of characters they’re most known for — and most liked for — so long as they do it well. And with Scoop, Woody Allen has done it very well indeed.
No, it’s not on the level of Allen’s truly great films. It’s not Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanors. But it’s certainly in the same league as A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose and Manhattan Murder Mystery. Scoop is a kind of movie you just don’t see these days — an intelligently crafted entertainment that pretends to be nothing more. There’s no deep meaning, but neither does the film insult your intelligence, nor does it plumb the depths of bathroom humor in a desperate bid to appease the lowest common denominator.
Does Scoop recall earlier Allen films? Of course it does. What comedian’s films don’t? For that matter, what notable filmmaker’s work isn’t filled with recurring themes and bits of business? In this regard, Scoop starts out in a manner that calls to mind Broadway Danny Rose — with a group of friends, fresh from a funeral, reminiscing about their late coworker, legendary reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane, Sexy Beast). The film quickly switches gears to find Strombel aboard Charon’s ferry across the River Styx.
Here Strombel gets a tip on a hot story from fellow passenger Jane Cook (Fenella Woolgar, Bright Young Things), who claims to have been murdered by the rich and powerful Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) because she’d discovered evidence that he is the infamous “Tarot Card Killer,” a serial murderer who disposes of prostitutes with short, dark hair leaving a Tarot card to mark the event. Not one to let a little thing like being dead stand in the way of a good story, Strombel jumps ship and returns to the land of the living hoping to pass this information on to a colleague. Unfortunately, the colleague he finds is Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), an inept American reporter for a college paper on holiday in London, who happens to be onstage in the disappearing cabinet of stage magician Splendini (Allen) when Strombel makes his appearance to pass on the tip.
For reasons that have more to do with teaming Allen and Johansson than anything else, Sondra ropes Spendini — real name Sid Waterman — into helping her track down, meet and investigate Lyman. In typical comedy tradition, this becomes increasingly complicated when she palms herself off as wealthy heiress Jade Spence and presents Sid as her father. And, of course, she’s going to fall in love with the irresistible Lyman.
Overall, it’s a fairly standard comedy mystery, but it’s also the work of a master comedian who understands the actual craft of comedy. It’s also a perfect springboard for rich comedic possibilities and the ideal pairing of Allen with Johansson, who proves to be the best foil he’s had since Diane Keaton. Unlike Mia Farrow, who all too often tended to emulate Allen, Johansson complements his performance, giving as good as she gets in the barb department. Allen has certainly given himself the best lines (“I was born into the Hebrew religion, but as I got older I converted to narcissism”), but that’s in large part because his character — an aging magician with the soul of a Borscht Belt comic pretending to be a wealthy oil magnate — lends itself to this. Still, he manages to be very generous to Johansson, who, for the first time in her career, is actually called upon to act — and it’s a breath of fresh air for her.
One day Scoop will be remembered as the film in which Allen came to terms with his age. While movies like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending certainly had their pleasures, both suggested that Allen was on the path of the later day Bob Hope as a 60-odd-year-old man pretending to be middle-aged. Allen altered this approach in Anything Else, but did so with no little bitterness and made himself subordinate to the film. Here he’s reached the perfect balance.
For those who pass up this little gem of a movie based on the naysayers, you’re cheating yourself out of one of the few adult pleasures of the summer, as well as missing the year’s funniest line (it comes at the very end of the film when Allen is explaining what happened to him). And it might be as well to remember that, while it’s regarded as an Allen classic today, Stardust Memories was greeted with even greater hostility when it first appeared 26 years ago. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke