By Pete Vonder Haar | July 30, 2006

Woody Allen can still be counted on for about a movie a year, but it’s clear he doesn’t put the same amount of effort into each one. Last year’s “Match Point,” while borrowing heavily from the plot of one of his own earlier movies (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”), received the best critical reception of any Allen film since 1999’s “Sweet and Lowdown.” The drama-slash-thriller was a far cry from his usual farcical takes on love and relationships, and there were plenty who argued that Allen’s decision not to cast himself in the movie went a long way towards making it a success.

But that was last year, and his latest effort – “Scoop” – finds Allen back in front of the camera as well as behind it. Allen plays Sid Waterman, AKA the Great Splendini, a Borscht Belt style magician performing at a small theater in London. He befriends a vacationing American journalism student named Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), who gets visited by the ghost of recently deceased reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) during Sid’s act. Strombel informs Sondra that Peter Lyman, a handsome London aristocrat and political up-and-comer, is actually a serial murderer known as the Tarot Card Killer. Strombel wants Sondra to break the story and expose Lyman for what he is.

To accomplish this, she enlists the reluctant Sid. The two engineer a meeting with Lyman (Hugh Jackman) and, masquerading as father and daughter, insinuate themselves into Lyman’s world. She gets close to the maybe murderer, but time is short as Sondra must uncover enough clues to stop Lyman before he can kill again, assuming it is Lyman, and assuming Sondra can keep her personal feelings at bay.

Yeah, it’s “Jagged Edge” without the edge. Then again, the real purpose of such screwball-type comedies is to showcase the crackling sexual tension between the two leads. This usually requires the passage of more than a few days before the parries in question actually sleep together, which isn’t the case here. Certainly, Jackman is suave and debonair, and Johansson isn’t utterly horrible as the slightly nerdy American abroad, and using such a small ensemble cast has its advantages (keeping the film intimate and letting us get to know the characters) as well as its disadvantages (bringing the script’s glaring weaknesses to the forefront).

More to the point, if your screenplay is marred by stale gags and clumsy transitions, you can sometimes mask it by spreading the speaking chores around a bit, but the bigger load each cast member has to shoulder, the more apparent it becomes that “Scoop” is about 50 minutes of plot padded with 40 minutes of Woody being Woody, holding forth on his various neuroses in order to mask the paper-thin story, which would barely flesh out an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Even a gifted actor like McShane is left looking lost at the end of some scenes, making you wish “Deadwood’s” Al Swearengen would show up and pitch Allen off a balcony.

And another thing, why do women, particularly supposedly intelligent/independent ones like Johansson, continue to work with Allen? Sondra is a vile caricature: the allegedly brainy yet awkward ingénue with a killer bod who just happens to be a slut as well. We’re first introduced to her character as she attempts to interview a famous film director for her college paper, only to find out in the next scene she ended up sleeping with him. When she needs a way to get close to Lyman, rather than doing some sleuthing or feigning a connection that might afford and opportunity to visit his house, she takes the easy road and hops into bed with him. This is classic Allen, who remains incapable of accepting the possibility that a woman could outmaneuver a man without beguiling him with her seductive wiles. And Johansson (who – for all her limitations as an actress – has some impressive wiles), his latest muse, is only too happy to oblige him.

Allen’s self-deprecating shtick works best in the framework of his semi-autobiographical films, and “Scoop” isn’t one of them. At best, it’s a mostly harmless trifle during which you can catch a few Zs, at worst it’s a further evidence that Allen is rapidly losing relevance to all but a select few people who think comedy peaked some time in the mid-70s.

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