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Dead wood

Top-notch actors and a novel setting can’t save Allen’s latest film

In Woody Allen’s new film Scoop, a character keeps coming back from the dead, convinced he still has worthwhile information to impart. If I suspected for a moment that Allen were self-aware enough for the irony to be intentional, I’d give the guy a standing ovation.

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Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman star in Woody Allen’s latest London adventure, Scoop.

Hey, I don’t begrudge a man his attempt at an artistic livelihood just because he’s crossed into his 70s. But watching this once-great filmmaker flounder behind the camera over the last decade is like those images of Willie Mays stumbling through the outfield at the end of his career, too stubborn to ride gracefully into the sunset with his Hall-of-Fame credentials.

Also like Mays, Allen seemed to think that a change of scenery would revive his fading glory. Like last year’s Match Point, Scoop is set not in Allen’s longtime New York stomping grounds, but in London. He also casts Scarlett Johansson as his leading lady for a second time, here playing Sondra, an American journalism student visiting family friends in England. It’s unlikely, however, that J-school ethics professors would approve of her preferred method of getting a story: sleeping with her subjects. She doesn’t seem particularly bright, and doesn’t even grasp why she is diving into journalism rather than the family orthodontic practice. Allen’s high regard for the female gender remains intact.

Yet, for some inexplicable reason, Sondra is the preferred recipient of veteran reporter Joe Strombel’s (Deadwood’s Ian McShane) message from beyond the grave. He’s got a hot afterlife tip that upper-class scion Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) may be the still-at-large, prostitute-murdering Tarot Card Killer about whom the Fleet Street headlines are screaming. And with the help of her feminine wiles and magician Sidney Waterman (Allen), Sondra is determined to find out the truth.

Scoop finds Allen attempting to return to frothy comedy with a suspenseful twist, the kind of thing he’s dabbled in from Manhattan Murder Mystery through The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. His comedic touch, however, has ossified to the point where nothing funny can grow organically out of the situations he creates. Supporting characters are left to stand around delivering the obvious set-ups for vaudeville-style gags on homophones for Trollope and Reubens, and there is none of the visual humor that characterized some of Allen’s best work. The movie just sits there, daring you to find a reason for its existence.

The same can be said for the roles played by Jackman and McShane. Actors continue to trip over their entourages for a chance to grab one of Allen’s your-lines-only scripts, but at this point it’s hard to understand why. While both Jackman and McShane have oozed charisma in their trademark roles — Jackman as X-Men’s Wolverine, McShane as Deadwood’s Al Swearengen — they are given absolutely nothing to do here but deliver leaden expository dialogue. They serve a plot function, and never remotely come to life as characters. Strombel may fade in and out of sight literally, but even when visible he practically blends into the wallpaper.

Perhaps the problem is that Allen the director is afraid that someone might steal the thunder from Allen the actor. And while it may simply be nostalgia talking, watching Allen slip on his familiar neurotic persona like a comfortable sweatshirt, with a few minor variations on the theme, is still the most enjoyable part of Scoop. Here he’s a low-rent showman perpetually eager to please, assuring everyone watching — whether in a theater or while performing card tricks at a party — that “I mean this from the bottom of my heart, you’re wonderful human beings.” Maybe it’s because no one around him exhibits a trace of character, but Allen’s own personality offers at least glimmers of entertainment.

That, however, is not much to hang a movie on — or, at this point, a career. It’s depressing watching a guy who made some of the funniest, most trenchant movies of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s become so utterly inconsequential. He’s American cinema’s Say Hey Kid, dropping pop fly after pop fly until you just have to turn your head away.


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