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Don't stop the presses

Woody Allen's Scoop has its moments, but the real story is the film could use more suspense and less camera time for Allen.

Published July 27, 2006

Any movie that features the Grim Reaper, a magician, a serial killer, a latter-day Jack the Ripper and Scarlett Johansson ought to be a huge amount of fun.

Add in writer-director Woody Allen, fresh off Match Point, his best movie in years, and your expectations could be very high indeed.

But Scoop is merely an acceptable time-passer. Its many positive attributes (which include a tightly constructed story, luscious London scenery and very amusing performances by Ian McShane and Hugh Jackman) are balanced at every turn by shortcomings, notably some massive logical anomalies.

The film's biggest liability, sad to say, turns out to be Allen himself. Not Allen the writer or Allen the director, but Allen the actor.

As the semi-competent vaudevillian magician Sid Waterman (who uses the wonderfully anachronistic stage name Splendini), Allen revisits his stock character: insecure and stammering, fearful and bewildered.

It was appealing when he was in his 30s, but now he's 71, and the same act - the social ineptitude and the vacant facial expression - comes off as just a little creepy. And the sharp and pithy one-line observations that used to make the character so much fun are largely absent here.

Splendini meets Johansson's character, an American journalism student named Sondra Prinsky, on an extended London vacation. He's performing his vaudeville-style magic act, and she's the volunteer from the audience who comes onstage so she can be made to disappear.

She steps inside a box that Splendini calls his "dematerializer," and there she encounters the ghost of Joe Strombel (McShane), a famous but recently deceased journalist. On his trip to the afterlife, aboard a barge piloted by the Grim Reaper, he has learned from a fellow passenger that a serial killer of London prostitutes may be Peter Lyman (Jackman), a well-known London nobleman.

Recognizing that this is the kind of story that could launch her journalism career, Prinsky hatches a plot to meet the alleged killer and investigate. Predictably, but still rather charmingly, she ends up falling in love with him.

The story is economical and moderately involving. It's intellectually interesting to try to figure out if Jackman is indeed the serial killer. But we don't really care all that much, and Johansson never seems to be in the kind of real life-or-death peril that can make the amateur-sleuth genre fun and exciting.

But even though the plot is tightly woven (seemingly inconsequential elements early in the film turn out to be significant) it's also full of holes. Prinsky insists that Splendini, whom she has barely met at the time, accompany her in her detective work and pose as her father. The killer hides a key piece of evidence in a secure location, and after it's discovered he hides another, even more incriminating clue in exactly the same place; he could have safely and easily discarded both, and the case would never have been solved.

Maybe high expectations are part of the problem. Scoop is certainly okay, but we just want a little more wit, insight or style from a Woody Allen film.



DIRECTOR: Woody Allen

CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, Woody Allen, Ian McShane


RATING: PG-13; some sexual content


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