It used to be the form that the mostly serious, fairly glum pictures Woody Allen wrote and directed but did not appear in would get less play than the funny films where he also stars. Recently, things have reversed — Hollywood Ending and Scoop didn’t get a UK theatrical release (and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion turned up late and with little enthusiasm), whereas Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream and Vicky Cristina Barcelona got reasonably high-profile showings. In the case of Scoop, this is odd (a BBC production, it debuted on TV) since – while it might not be as funny or fun as many of his back-catalogue classics – it’s a lot better, fresher and more entertaining than the overrated Match Point and the disastrous Cassandra’s Dream.
In a set-up which is probably too complex for comedy, ace reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), who has just died, gets talking on the boat across the Styx with a woman (Fenella Woolgar) who thinks she’s been murdered to prevent her fingering prominent wealthy aristo Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) as ‘the Tarot Card Killer’. Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), a ditzy journalism student, volunteers to be dematerialised by Sid Waterman aka the Great Splendini (Allen) as part of a stage act, and encounters Joe’s ghost in the magic cabinet – he gives her the Lyman scoop and, with Sid’s help, she pretends to be an American heiress in order to get close to the handsome suspect, who is so charming and taken with her that she begins to doubt Joe’s tip. Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream find Allen delving peculiarly into British high society crime without yocks – an arena he has no especial talent for; here, he makes fun of that sort of thing, with clues hidden inside antique musical instruments in a locked room and Sondra and Sid as a double-act of fast-talking, improvising, blundering imposter-detectives who fail to tumble to the solution (Peter isn’t the serial killer, but he has committed a murder and made it seem to be one of the Tarot crimes) until Peter literally tosses Sondra out of a boat into the lake (like the entire plot of Match Point, this is a reference to A Place in the Sun).
The parts of the film which work best are the most traditional – as often, Allen gives a surrogate lines that sound like his voice, which here means Johansson has to play ‘Woody Allen’ opposite the actual Woody, which is surprisingly sweet. As in Deception, Jackman is a bit stiff as the handsome, charming, sinister manupulator, while McShane gets curiously little to work with as the news-chasing ghost. The conceit of the film is that only Woody and Scarlett are funny, and everyone else acts at the glacial pace of his other London-set movies, which is fair enough but means the supporting cast (including UK faces like Anthony Head, Mark Heap, Romola Garai, Julian Glover, Charles Dance, Margaret Tyzack, Lynda Baron and Geoff Bell) are simple stooges. Tina Rath, the vampire expert and film extra, has a speaking part as another Splendini audience participant.