March 15th, 2007 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

We all have to get old some time.

It seemed like Woody Allen never would. For a long time he was the same nebbish, neurotic Manhattanite we first met in early classics like Sleeper and Annie Hall. He’s always had the same stature, the same Coke bottle bottom glasses, the same nervous twitch demeanour and the same rib-tickling self-loathing.

His high profile split from long-time partner Mia Farrow sparked Allen’s decade-long decline, and the intellectual mystique of his films faded throughout the 1990s. Most critics and audiences agreed he’d arrived again with 2004’s Melinda and Melinda, a bit greyer but as sharp as ever.

Continuing the love affair with upper crust London that began with Match Point, the first film from the Woody Allen brand not to be set in his beloved New York, Scoop marks one important change in him.

Despite the critical mauling and audience indifference to movies like Small Time Crooks, Sweet and Lowdown, Everyone Says I Love You and Mighty Aphrodite, they were still very smart films and featured Allen’s faultless sense for naturalistic dialogue.

Unfortunately all the magic has evaporated in Scoop. Characters feel ill conceived, they don’t fit together, and worse still the dialogue feels forced, the relationships phoney.

The most questionable link is between Allen’s latest muse Scarlett Johansson and Allen himself. She plays a nerdy but determined student reporter on holiday with well-to-do friends and Allen plays Sid, a hackneyed stage magician calling himself the Great Splendini.

Sondra (Johansson) takes part in one of Sid’s clichéd tricks while seeing his show with her friends — disappearing in a large box and reappearing later. But what happens is no trick. The ghost of veteran investigative reporter Joe Strombel (McShane) appears to her, having escaped death to return to earth and impart his last great scoop to anyone who can get the story out, and the bumbling Sondra is his target.

It seems that among the companions accompanying Joe in his eternal travel across the River Styx with Death at the helm is a woman who believes she was murdered when she stumbled upon evidence her employer, the rich playboy Peter Lyman (Jackman) is the infamous Tarot Card killer stalking London.

Joe jumps ship to swim back to Earth and seek Sondra out, telling her the story while she waits to ‘reappear’ to the Great Splendini’s audience.

She goes back to see Sid, a cynical, all-too self-aware and neurotic Brooklyner (not too much of a stretch for Allen), and tries to enlist his help. That she does so is the film’s first mystery. Even when it becomes apparent he had nothing to do with Strombel’s appearance and makes it clear how reluctant he is to help, she makes him tag along. This also despite the exasperated love/hate relationship that springs up between them as they pose as father and daughter to work their way into Lyman’s confidence. The relationship feels forced, with no reason other than the convenience of the plot to keep the two together.

Johansson herself is also a contradictory enigma. Throughout the film she has a cute-but-dumb kid quality, as naíve and overeager as Clark Kent while exhibiting femme fatale characteristics when they’re needed.

Allen’s other unchallenged skill — natural comic dialogue — has gone AWOL. Or the first time in his films, you can hear the lines in Scoop trying to be funny. Ironically, Allen himself has as many great lines as always, but they don’t fit comfortably into the flow of the story. If he was on stage delivering a monologue with pearls like ‘You come from an orthodox family, would they accept a serial killer?’ he’d bring the house down.

It’s as good an idea for a film as any Allen’s had, it’s just that the lack of… zing seems to be the cause of a mind that’s slowing down, forgetting how subtle intellectual comedy can be. Everyone involved gives the same naturalistic performances Allen’s always elicited from his cast as a director, but for the first time in a along time none of it just seems to fit together comfortably.

Maybe it’s time for Allen to go home to Manhattan and stop playing around with a woman a third his age, but Scoop is no media revelation.

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