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Old Dog Learns New Tricks 

In his long and incredibly prolific career (36 features to date and another currently shooting), writer/director Woody Allen has made three kinds of films. Early in his career, he made straight comedies whose sole objective was to produce laughs. Those familiar with his later work may spot enduring themes, but Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex would jettison plot and character both to squeeze in another guffaw. Beginning with Annie Hall in 1977, Allen began to mix his comedies with serious reflections on romance, politics, art, moral imperatives and theology. Outstanding examples would include Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway just to name a few. And with Interiors in 1978, Allen also began to make purely serious films, dark dramas that struggled to find hope in the human condition. Another Woman, the great Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sweet and Lowdown, and last year's Match Point fall into this third category. Allen's current Scoop represents something different still, an interesting and perhaps encouraging departure from what has come before.

Scoop is a new breed of Allen comedy. American college student Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) is on extended holiday in London where she attends a cheesy magic show by doddering vaudevillian Sid Waterman (Allen) who bills himself as The Great Splendini. After soliciting her as a volunteer, Splendini places Sondra in a large wooden box and makes her disappear. While she's gone wherever the disappeared go, she encounters a ghost named Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), an investigative reporter who had the misfortune to die just before breaking the biggest story of his career: the identity of a serial killer.

Unlike Allen's more concertedly controlled narratives of the last 30 years, Scoop doesn't even bother to ask why Joe is in Splendini's box or why he wouldn't cast about for someone among the living rather better qualified than Sondra to pursue the leads of his last great story. Satisfied once he learns that Sondra worked on her college newspaper, Joe confides his suspicions and thereafter hangs around ephemerally to urge her on. Joe thinks that the dastard strangler is Sir Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), future member of the House of Lords and heir to a vast estate. Peter is also suave, articulate, intelligent and handsome. So Splendini suggests that Sondra outfit herself in a clingy red bathing suit and proceed to feign drowning in the pool at Peter's athletic club just about the moment Peter is swimming by. The watery plot is enacted, and pretty soon Peter and Sondra are dating. The question is whether Peter is guilty or innocent and whether Sondra will fall in love with him before she finds out. In either case, we gather, she will get her man. For reasons as blithely contrived as most everything else here, Splendini hangs around to participate in the undercover investigation. He pretends to be Sondra's father, performs magic tricks at Peter's swank parties, functions as a cowardly Greek chorus and delivers one-liners that lack Allen's usual undertone of existential angst.

Allen quit casting himself exclusively as his own protagonist a long time ago. But in his comedies especially, even when absent, the viewer could feel his nervous, questioning, quipping presence in the performances of others, of Mia Farrow's in The Purple Rose of Cairo, of John Cusack's in Bullets Over Broadway and almost distressingly of Kenneth Branagh's in Celebrity. Johansson might have surrendered to the temptation to play Sondra as a young, female Alvy Singer/Isaac Davis, but she wisely doesn't, and her emergence as a fresh character is no small part of what makes Scoop feel so different.

Allen ventured into new narrative territory last year with Match Point's thriller structure, but his underlying themes of moral opaqueness and the whim of fortune were entirely the material of his earlier work. Scoop seems deliberately without any thematic substructure at all. Allen isn't trying to say anything pointed about journalism, violent crime or the privileges of wealth. Splendini's mannerisms and sense of humor recall the Allen nebbish of old, but with none of that often revisited character's bedrock of intelligence or guile. Splendini is funny but nothing more. In the end, then, Scoop seems less ambitious than any of Allen's great comedies. It's not as relentlessly funny as the early work and not as subtle or contemplative as the best comedies from Annie Hall on. But neither is it as worn out as all the comedies after Deconstructing Harry in 1997. The picture has a lightness to it that Allen has never aimed for previously, and in that regard it recalls such screwball comedies as His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby that exist not to stimulate but to delight. Scoop doesn't stand with Allen's masterworks, but it does suggest he's still got some creative cards up his sleeve.

click to enlarge As Peter (Hugh Jackman) charms Sondra (Scarlett - Johansson), she'd like aging magician Sid (Woody Allen) to - do his disappearing act. - CLIVE COOTE
  • Clive Coote
  • As Peter (Hugh Jackman) charms Sondra (Scarlett Johansson), she'd like aging magician Sid (Woody Allen) to do his disappearing act.
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