While Match Point garnered Woody Allen with near universal praise, his follow-up, Scoop, merely got universal ‘meh’. I was curious to see if my own appraisal could be bumped up to something more generous after so many years, but after this week’s viewing I was disappointed once again.
Murder reappears here, as does the London location, though this time it’s played for laughs. Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) is a recently deceased journalist on his way to the afterlife when he gets a scoop about the identity of the Tarot Card Killer. He returns to Earth to give this scoop to an American journalism student, Sonya Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), while she is volunteering in the middle of a magic act by the Great Splendini, AKA Syd Waterman (Woody Allen). Sonya and Syd team up to investigate the alleged killer, the aristocratic Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), but Sonya finds herself falling for Peter’s charms while Syd uncovers the truth.
Unfortunately audiences did not fall for the charms of this film, and in fact though it was financed and filmed in the UK, it did not even receive a theatrical release there. Several critics at the time wished that Woody had stayed behind the camera as he had done in Match Point, while a few defenders pointed out that at least now he had relegated himself to an avuncular type of role and not a love interest for his much younger leading lady.
I actually find Woody’s performance to be one of the few highlights of this film. As annoying as his character is, he can play this type of part really well since it’s really a slight variation of his Broadway Danny Rose role with lines like “The man is a liar and a murderer, and I say that with all due respect.” On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson struggles to play a dowdy nerd. The rest of the cast are fine, but at best they are not given much to do and at worst they are not given anything funny.
It is still intriguing to see a Woody Allen film so far away from his usual location and without his usual style. Once again the soundtrack eschews classic jazz for classical music – this time it’s mostly Sleeping Beauty and Peer Gynt. But the style, setting and chronology means one can’t help but compare Scoop with Match Point, and in every case it can’t compete. It’s not that this film isn’t as weighty, because it’s clearly a comedy. But it’s a comedy that’s not all that funny and a mystery that’s not much of a mystery.
The one piece of existential weight the film carries is just for laughs: the bookend scenes set on the Grim Reaper’s boat. That’s a nice touch, but just that, the unexpected conclusion for Syd’s character and certain line readings by Woody Allen (the one about someone contracting elm blight I always find amusing) aren’t enough to save the film from be anything but just okay.
Next week: Cassandra’s Dream