Scoop May 17, 2016
“Who’s Jade Spence?” Vivian (Roman Garai) asks her friend, the beautiful but ferociously neurotic Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson).
Sondra grimaces. “A would-be investigative reporter who has fallen in love with the object of her investigation.”
Sondra is a journalism student visiting friends (Vivian being one of them) in London over the summer. Her initial goals were to spend the next three months taking in the sun, seeing the sights, and indulging herself in fine foods — but plans of leisure have been halted in search of a scoop.
While attending a magic show headlined by Sid Waterman (Woody Allen), Sondra is called onstage to act as his assistant, a memorable treat for any young tourist. But during her participation in the age-old Dematerialization gag, the shock of her life hits her like a truck. In the booth with her is Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a legendary journalist whose recent death has rocked the news circuit. Though a ghost (just go with it), Sondra is surprised that Joe appears to be made of flesh and blood. More surprising, though, is the information he has to share with her.
Upon traveling down the Styx, he encountered Jane Cook (Fenella Woolgar), the former assistant of socialite Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman). One should put emphasis on “former,” though: Jane suspects that she was poisoned, and that Peter was the perpetrator. Why? She believed him to be the Tarot Card Killer, a prolific London serial murderer specializing in the offings of prostitutes.
As a cognoscente of hard hitting stories, Joe is taken by the proclamation and decides that he’s not going to let death stop him from otherworldly justice seeking. Why he chooses Sondra to prolong his legacy, who we suspect has gone into journalism only recently (we’re repeatedly reminded that she, for most of her young life, had planned to become a dental hygienist), is curious.
But we, and Sondra, go along with it, as the proposal is interesting and because such an explosive piece cannot go ignored. Unsure how to go about her work, Sondra befuddlingly enlists the help of Sid, for no other apparent reason besides the fact that his disappearing booth held Joe’s spirit. But they get along decently, proving to be an entertaining pair of snoops with a lot in common with Lily Tomlin and Art Carney in 1977’s The Late Show.
Smartly (if perhaps dangerously), the two figure the best way to force their way into Peter’s social circle is through seduction. Sondra, luckily, is a hot blond who doesn’t know it, the classic stereotype of the woman who doesn’t become the babe until she takes off her glasses. She turns herself into Jade Spence, and introduces Sid as her father. Unconvincingly (notice how Sondra struggles for far too long picking out a fake name right in front of her would-be object of affection), their plan works — Sondra and Peter almost immediately hit it off. But things are complicated when our heroine hazardously falls in love with her topic of interest, ignoring facts that are more than just a little suspicious.
2006’s Scoop is Nancy Drew lite, Manhattan Murder Mystery lite, and, most emphatically, Woody Allen lite. It’s the dreaded type of film Allen die-hards are prone to finding in an age where he either makes terrific dramas or aggravatingly slight comedies. Unfortunately, Scoop is of the latter category, a case of fizzy auto-pilot that manages to be amusing but not much more than that. Allen phoning it in is a phenomenon that has been occurring since the early 2000s (just look at The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and To Rome with Love), but I’ve never been bothered by it — his weightless larks are trifling, sure, yet they always carry a sweet energy that makes them more sugary than outrightly bad.
So Scoop isn’t bad, but it’s not very good either, and that’s no way to go about moviemaking or moviewatching. It begins charismatically, but not much time passes before we begin to notice that Johansson’s Sondra is little more than the female version of a cartoonishly rendered Allen, that the central mystery isn’t luring enough to disguise the fact that the film is mostly a vehicle for its writer/director/star to spew out half-baked one-liners, and that it all seems like a ploy for Allen to spend time with his muse.
And I’m only partially downcast by this distinction; as I love Allen and Johansson (especially when in the presence of the other), there is a certain sort of joy to be felt in seeing them trade barbs, in seeing them play off of each other like some vaudevillian comic pair. But I’m also turned off by Jackman’s forced performance (not the fault of Jackman himself), which requires him to act and react in ways no one would in his situation, by the entire supernatural angle, and by the pestering feeling that the film might have been better had Allen refrained from casting himself as one of its two detective heroes.
But I don’t want to be too hard on Scoop, since I did like it and since it’s inoffensive and can easily be avoided if you’re looking for Allen at his prime. He’s got a lot more to offer, in the meantime. But traveling on auto-pilot isn’t a rewarding thing to do. I just wish Allen weren’t so dependent on it. C+