There once was a time when Woody Allen films were compared to the films of other directors. At first, he outright spoofed the works of Antonioni and Eisenstein, and then, as his artistic ambitions became more serious, he emulated the works of Bergman and Fellini. But lately, the primary reference point for Woody Allen films has been, well, other Woody Allen films. And nowhere is that more evident than in Scoop, a film that plays like a pastiche of several of his other works.
Because it stars Scarlett Johansson as an American who hobnobs with the British upper class, Scoop most obviously invites comparisons with Match Point—but where that film was deadly serious, this new film is a light-spirited lark. And because Johansson plays a journalism student who tries, in her own amateurish way, to learn the identity of a mysterious serial murderer called the Tarot Card Killer, this film is similar in spirit to one of Allen's earlier trifles, Manhattan Murder Mystery.
The comparisons certainly don't end there. Like Broadway Danny Rose, the new film features Allen himself as a character, in this case named Sid Waterman, who qualifies his sometimes blunt criticisms of other people with the words "and I say this with all due respect"; and also like that earlier film, the new one begins with men sitting around a table and reminiscing about one of their colleagues—in this case, a journalist named Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) who recently passed away.
Like Shadows and Fog, the new film plays with the idea that we can cheat death, for at least a little while, through the illusory power of magic. The first time we see Joe, he is on a ferry with the Grim Reaper and several other recently deceased people, crossing that dark river into the underworld; one of Joe's fellow passengers believes she was poisoned for discovering the Tarot Card Killer's true identity, and Joe, never one to abandon a good scoop, hops off the boat and swims back to our world—arriving in a cabinet that is part of a magic trick performed by Sid Waterman, who goes by the name "The Great Splendini" for his stage-magician act.
Like the cabinet in Oedipus Wrecks, Woody Allen's contribution to the anthology New York Stories, the magic cabinet in this film is supposed to make people disappear and reappear, and the old-school magic is combined with an oddly modern reference to the "molecules" of the people who step inside. And like the cabinet in that other film, the cabinet in this one isn't supposed to really work—it's all just a trick, after all—and yet something supernatural does happen. Johansson's character, Sondra Pransky, just happens to be the audience member who has stepped inside the cabinet before Joe appears there, so he assumes she's a journalist and urgently passes on his tip. Before fading back into the afterlife, he tells her the Tarot Card Killer is probably one Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), the son of a British lord.
Sondra doesn't know quite what to do with this information, and since she met Joe inside Sid's cabinet, she persuades Sid to join her in solving this mystery. Her friends (Sondra is staying with some wealthy British acquaintances) tell her that Peter likes to swim at a certain club, so she and Sid go there, and she pretends to drown to get Peter's attention. Her scheme works, and immediately after "rescuing" her, Peter invites her to his estate, and she accepts, though she does not tell him her real name; she also tells him that Sid is her father. Those who remember how Allen used to cast himself as the love interest for much younger women will appreciate this change of pace, though even here, Allen doesn't quite seem to be acting his age; at 70, he could easily be the grandfather of the 21-year-old Johansson.
What follows is an amusing mix of skulking around, as Sondra and Sid look for clues that might link Peter to the Tarot Card murders, and romantic comedy, as Sondra realizes that she is falling for the very dashing and engaging Peter. Allen also indulges his usual shtick—and in a more pointed fashion than usual, playing up Jewish stereotypes against the snootiness of the Brits and leaving you wondering if he's critiquing the biases of the social elite and thus resisting being one of them, critiquing his own people as a way of fitting in with the social elite, or both.
"Shtick," by the way, is the best word for this film. Scoop is reminiscent of several of Woody Allen's films, but in a strange way, it harks back to films that were neither great nor lousy—and like those films, it is an enjoyable diversion, at least for those who are already fans of the Woodman. Some critics have complained that Scoop squanders the goodwill that Allen earned with the oh-so-serious Match Point, but I found that film disappointing and even a bit pretentious, whereas Scoop is exactly the sort of light fluff that it aspires to be. Or, to play on the title, it goes down easy like a scoop of ice cream, even if it's more like the soft stuff you get at McDonald's and not like a good helping of Breyer's. Scoop may not be as funny as Bullets over Broadway, which for my money is the best live-action Allen film of the post-Mia Farrow era, but it is also not as dull or tedious as some of his other films.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- In at least one of his other films, Woody Allen says he doesn't laugh in the face of Death; instead, he makes belittling remarks behind Death's back. What do you make of this film's portrayal of Death (the Grim Reaper on the boat, etc.)? Is it just a joke, or is there a serious point to it? If there is a serious point, what is it
- Do you think Sondra does the ethical thing by pursuing the mystery herself, instead of giving her tip to the police? Do you think she could have done anything differently, given how she came by her information in the first place
- Do you think it is possible to receive messages from the dead? Why or why not? Are there any limitations on how we could, or should, receive such messages? Do you think the dead are all that interested in the concerns of our world?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Scoop is rated PG-13 for some sexual content. Sondra sleeps with a filmmaker she is trying to interview, and she later sleeps with a man she suspects might be a serial killer, but nothing is shown except bare shoulders over blankets. The story involves an unidentified serial killer; the only onscreen murder attempt is not graphic.
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Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/03/06
Woody Allen enjoyed a return to critical acclaim last year with the troubling drama Match Point. Now, with Scoop, he's back in the territory of light comedy.
Scarlett Johansson stars as Sondra Pransky, a journalism student from the U.S. who encounters a ghost in London and learns crucial clues in tracking a serial killer. She teams up with a magician called Splendini (Allen), and gets to know an aristocrat named Peter Lyman (this year's busiest actor: Hugh Jackman.) With such an appealing cast, Allen has managed to score another hit with the critics, even if many of them do identify it as rather derivative of his previous work.
Frederica Matthewes-Green (Frederica.com, originally published in The National Review) says, "Scoop slips." She says it's "not very funny" and "not very suspenseful," and argues that Allen is repeating himself. "Perhaps he is searching for inspiration by asking himself which of his films got the best reviews, or gave him the most satisfaction. But films like this one only bring down his average from excellent to so-so."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) disagrees, saying, "Shooting in the United Kingdom has given Woody Allen an artistic shot in the arm, and so it is that Scoop, the lightweight but entertaining follow-up to the excellent drama Match Point, proves another winner."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) calls it "a dialogue-heavy comedy that runs out of gas long before it reaches the finish line. It's essentially two people talking, then three people talking—but it's only fitfully amusing." He does, however, praise Hugh Jackman's performance.
For the most part, mainstream critics enjoyed this Scoop.from Film Forum, 08/10/06
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says, "Scoop is a somewhat rare commodity in today's cinema world. It's a PG-13 comedy that veers away from gross toilet humor and blow-out-all-the-stops sexuality, relying instead on an old-school comedy staple: jokes. It's a middling-paced, middle-of-the-road romp that knows it's a lightweight bag of farcical rim-shots, and knows that you know it, too." But he's not pleased with the "occasional mystical/crystal ball-esque references and the breezy sexual attitude of the story's central character."
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