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Friday, Oct. 19, 2007
LONDON MURDER MYSTERY
Woody thrilled to get Scarlett
By KAORI SHOJI
"Scoop" is not exactly Woody Allen back in top-notch comedy form, but there's a giddy, debonair humor to it that makes you think he was really happy when making this film. And that is probably due to the fact that he was working with Scarlett Johansson for the second time in a row after the dark, stylish morality tale "Match Point."
Interviews with Allen during the making of these two pictures show him atypically chatty, barely hiding his enthusiasm over getting to monopolize the lovely Scarlett, and in London — his city of choice since absconding from New York.
About 10 years ago Allen was still playing Romeo to his various desirable costars on-screen — the director was then in his 60s and the sight of him in a passionate embrace with actresses decades younger didn't go over very well with the critics. Now 72, the director has relinquished the role of ardent lover and relegated himself to playing Johansson's father figure, albeit one with numerous tics, speech defects and enough nervous tension to inflate a tire. Any amount of time spent in this dad's company will drive a daughter clinically insane, but as the daughter is none other than Johansson, she's used to the idiosyncrasies of old guys (after all, what was "Lost in Translation," if not a taming of the creased and moody Bill Murray?) and can switch from nubile nymph to brainy nurse-companion to girlishly cute at the slightest flicker of her long eyelashes. No wonder Allen looks ready to dissolve in ecstasy.
From the first scenes, "Scoop" is rife with sexual innuendo — Sondra Pransky (Johansson), a journalism student from the United States, is vacationing at her girlfriend's house in London and hangs out in a posh hotel lobby in the hopes of a landing an interview with a famed film director. She sort of succeeds, but instead of an interview, "I just wound up sleeping with him!" as she later tells her friend Vivian (Romola Garai) as the pair lounge in the bedroom, giggling in very skimpy nightdresses.
Later at a magic show, Sondra is invited on-stage by Brooklyn-bred magician "Splendini," aka Sid Waterman (Allen), who has her step into a disappearing box. Inside, she finds herself in a tight corner with newshound Joe Strombell (Ian McShane), who actually has died a couple of days previous. He's managed to give the Grim Reaper a temporary slip, so that he can give a fellow journo the tip-off of a lifetime — that the serial killer stealing tabloid headlines that summer is Lord Peter Lymon (Hugh Jackman), the most eligible, desirable, wealthy bachelor ever to have donned a Savile Row suit.
The resourceful and imaginative Sondra doesn't need much convincing; she immediately enlists the aid of Sid, first in getting acquainted with Peter (they pose as father-daughter oil tycoons from the States) and then check out his resplendent London house to look for murder clues.
Johansson gives a pitch-perfect performance of a slightly ditzy, slightly frumpy American student, adorable in specs and an array of slightly regrettable outfits, all of which seem to have been purchased at a Gap store sale.
"I love how you're . . . down to earth. So different from the girls I know," croons Lord Peter and in no time she has him ready to propose.
Each time she stays over at his place, she snoops around his belongings and reports back to Sid over tea or Indian food. Intentionally or not on the part of the director, Sondra seems much livelier and cheery when she's with Sid, and the pair come off as unlikely but well-matched companions, enjoying a British holiday without the pitfalls of romance and sex.
Alas, if only the fog cleared up a little. Unlike "Match Point," Allen reverts to the blurry, orange-hued visuals that made his recent works difficult to take in — most of the scenes look as if they've been filtered through the lampshade in an old lady's living room. The focus however, inexplicably sharpens when Sondra's face is in the frame. It takes a film like "Scoop" to show just how incredibly watchable Johansson is, so much so that the story loses much of its charm when she's not around.
Fourteen years back Allen made another murder movie ("Manhattan Murder Mystery"), casting himself and Diane Keaton as husband-and-wife sleuths. It was a fun, cynical piece of work that fully deployed Keaton's natural exuberance and Allen's neurotic mannerisms. The calm objectivity that made that film work as a mystery is absent from "Scoop."
In the end, we're left thinking that perhaps the real scoop is the director getting to go for on-screen dates with one of the most visible actresses of her time, and that the title is a tribute to her: There's those two o's in scoop, the rest of the word consists of round, curvy letters and its meaning conjures sweetly delicious things like ice cream and jello.
For all that, Allen remains on the sidelines, giving Johansson a free hand while watching protectively from the herbaceous border. Very English.