Film Review Of Scoop
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/3/06
To read many of the current reviews of Woody Allen’s latest film, Scoop, his second straight set in England, after last year’s successful comeback with Match Point, which harkened back to his Golden Era, one would believe that the film was on par with some of his decidedly lesser post-Golden Era films, like The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion or Anything Else. It’s not. In a sense it’s the comedic side of Match Point, save that the killer gets caught- or, rather, both killers get caught, and this time Scarlett Johansson survives. It’s well acted and well written; which is a given for a Woody Allen film. It seems that there are simply too many people with negative feelings for Allen- either for his lack of Golden Era-level films in the last decade and a half, or resentments over the whole scandal with Mia Farrow and her daughter.
But, even third rate Allen is a few notches funnier than the best dreck Hollywood offers, and all Allen films get better with successive viewings. This tale- a bit over an hour and a half, uses several key themes in the Allen canon- sex, deceit, lies, murder, and magic, and also has much in common with 1993’s underrated Manhattan Murder Mystery, his terrific 1984 film, Broadway Danny Rose- perhaps his best straight comedy, and some of 1989’s Oedipus Wrecks- from the New York Stories trilogy film Allen did with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Johansson plays Sondra Pransky, a college student in England who is studying journalism. She is selected out of the audience by the Great Splendini (Allen), whose real name is Sid Waterman. What works well is that Johansson is a very good comedienne, and much more believable in this role than her role as the bitchy siren in Match Point. Unlike many other Woody persona stand-ins of the last twenty years, she handles his humor without aping the Woody persona (see John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, or Will Ferrell in Melinda And Melinda), and may be the best Allen comedienne after Diane Keaton.
She has a great rapport with Allen’s Sid, and since she delivers the ‘real’ Woody persona lines, Allen is free to let his aging magician be merely a parody of that character- stuttering far too much and doing really bad puns and jokes, like, ‘I used to be of the Hebrew persuasion, but as I got older, I converted to narcissism.’ This is similar to roles he’s played in the last few years in his films, but here it’s not watered down Alvy Singer from Annie Hall, at the film’s core, with refried jokes from better films, but an actual burlesque on the whole Woody persona- and it works well. Of course, few critics see this, and thus sour on the whole film, missing this point, and tossing off cheap lines like, ‘To see Allen, now 70, trying to reclaim the persona he’s been handing off is like watching Willie Mays fall down trying to hit a curve ball during his last season.’
When Sondra is put in a box to be disappeared to the audience she has a real life psi experience (not unlike Giulieta Masina does in Federico Fellini’s Nights Of Cabiria), and encounters a London reporter named Joe Strombel (Ian McShane- one of the best actors going, who severely needs greater attention to his work) who’s recently died, and on Charon’s boat across the River Styx. On the boat he met the secretary of the son of an English Lord, Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), whom she suspected of being the Tarot Card Killer- a psychopath who kills short-haired brunets, and evokes memories of Jack the Ripper, before she feels she was poisoned to death.
With this knowledge, Strombel escapes the ferryboat to Hell, and meets Sondra in the cabinet. He tells her his suspicion and wants one last ‘scoop’, even if posthumously. Sondra then teams up with a reluctant Sid- who needs appearances from Strombel to convince him of the truth. After a series of coincidences prove that Peter is not the serial killer, Sondra- who has assumed the name Jade Spence, with Sid as her dad, is satisfied that Peter is innocent, but Sid proves he’s guilty of a murder that takes advantage of the serial killer’s m.o. and rushes to save her, but is killed by driving on the wrong side of the road- a terrific way to a) play off Allen’s real life aversion to automobiles and b) kill off his Woody persona for good. Allen reputedly has said this is his last film that he will act in. Sid ends the film on Charon’s boat, playing cheap card tricks for other deceased, while Sondra survives Peter’s murder attempt on a rowboat in a lake (shades of Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux), and attempted coverup, and ends up sending him to prison, and getting the ‘scoop’ of a lifetime.
The curse of being great is that good, even when very good, is never good enough for some, but one only needs to look at the recent mediocre Hollywood films made by Allen’s co-directors from New York Stories- Scorsese and Coppola- to see that Allen is still the most consistent of the troika, as well the most creative. This is all the more remarkable since he writes all his films, as well as directs them- unlike Scorsese and Coppola. The cinematography is first rate, and some of the shots of London evoke some of the best scenes of the city architecture from Hannah And Her Sisters and Another Woman. Yet, despite some of the negative reviews, Allen displays some of the best writing he’s done recently. For example, when Peter tries to kill Sondra by drowning her, he believes she cannot swim, for she pretended to drown so he could save her at a posh club’s pool. Of course, this key fact is all but forgotten when we see her ‘drowning’. Peter knows by then that she faked her ID to get to know him, but does not realize she also faked not being able to swim. This fact is what gets him caught, but by then the audience has already forgotten that key point- the sign of a good screenplay, and wonders whether or not he’ll get away with murder, as other Allen villains have.
So, when you read negative reviews of this film, which might compare it to some of his decidedly lighter weight comedies like Small Time Crooks (which was still funnier than a Wayans family film), do not believe it. Scoop is a good movie- a very good movie, and in her second pairing with Allen, Scarlett Johansson proves that while she may never be the sex symbol/screen siren type in the Angelina Jolie/Halle Berry/Catherine Zeta-Jones mold, she can do comedy the way none of them can. And, since few have ever done comedy equal to or better than Allen, I predict an Oscar for her in the very near future- and, for a change, she may be the rare starlet who’ll deserve such kudos.
As for Allen? Now with his Woody persona killed, one can only hope that the behind the scenes Allen will concentrate more on screenplays in the Match Point vein, and produce a few latter-day gems to bookend such Golden Era fare as Stardust Memories, Radio Days, and Crimes And Misdemeanors. And if Johansson is in a few, so much the better, for an Annie Hall for a younger generation could never be considered a bad thing.
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