Back in his prime, Woody Allen was what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew: He told wryly self-effacing jokes with an Old Testament sense of vengeance and a vaudevillian sense of awareness. But for well over a decade now, his movies have been more and more ... oh, what's the word? Pathetic? Witless? Indulgent?
His latest, Scoop, is better than usual, if only by a few graying hairs. It's a mish-mash of genres, and it plays more like dessert than a main course. Still, it's entertaining, especially if you approach it with the lowest of expectations.
Scoop begins in London, at the funeral of Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a famous investigative journalist whose motto was, "Get the story first, but first, get the story right." After the eulogies, we meet Joe, floating down a river, presumably Styx, in his afterlife. He tells a chatty woman that London's Tarot Card Killer is Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), the wealthy and politically ambitious son of an aristocratic English family. Of course, there's not much he can do about it now. Or is there?
Placing mind over matter, he makes a break for it, and he rematerializes on a London stage, inside a box where a magician is about to make a woman from the audience disappear. The woman is Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), a slightly flaky journalism student who almost became a dental hygienist. Joe gives her his post-mortem scoop, and to get the story, she enlists the help of Splendini (Allen), né Sid Waterman, the Brooklyn prestidigitator/comic and lox out of water who's making her disappear when Joe drops in.
Fanciful stuff? Sure, but not original: Think of Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, throw in a little Manhattan Murder Mystery and Broadway Danny Rose, then wrap it all up in His Girl Friday and a hint of Hitch, and you've got a buffet of palatable leftovers. (Last year, Allen's overrated Match Point also involved high-society murder.) Put Allen's character in a car and you get a wreck. Mention Trollope and you get a joke about a loose woman. Refer to Rubens and you get a crack about a sandwich. And of course: "I used to be of the Hebraic faith, but I converted to narcissism."
Ain't that the gospel truth. Allen seems to have confused narcissism with nihilism, replacing the latter with the former in a series of jokes that are sometimes more brittle than funny. The acting in Scoop is mannered but unobtrusive, and the lovely musical score features Tchaikovsky ... only this time, Peter is the wolf. It all adds up to nothing much, and Allen contributes only one or two new quotable quips to his oeuvre of classic one-liners for all occasions. In Annie Hall, his character famously said, "Don't knock masturbation, it's sex with someone I love." Apparently, almost 30 years later, so is filmmaking.