Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 08/13/06 17:39:48

"A pleasant surprise, but not overwhelmingly so"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Here’s the thing about Woody Allen—tempting as it is as times, you can’t write him off. I enjoyed “Scoop” as much as I’ve enjoyed any film this summer. How’s that for a surprise?

Allen writes and directs, as always, and returns as an actor in this one as Sid Waterman, a.k.a. The Great Splendini, a third rate variety magician working the cheaper London music halls, whose big trick is making a woman in a box disappear. During one performance, he calls out of the audience Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), a journalism student visiting from America. While Sondra is in the box she has a brief conversation with the spirit of a recently deceased hot shot Brit reporter (Ian McShane) who tells her that he has learned in the afterlife that wealthy Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the notorious Tarot Card Killer, a serial murderer specializing in hookers with short, brunette hair.

On the trail of the scoop of a lifetime, Sondra enlists Sid’s aid in trapping the killer. But come on, the guy looks like Hugh Jackman and has the charm of Cary Grant and soon, romantically speaking, she’s a goner.

The film is essentially a romantic comedy with murderous undertones. Sondra tells Peter that Sid is her father, Sid reluctantly goes along, and love is in the English air. The dead reporter keeps popping up whenever he’s uncovered new information—his informant is Peter’s late secretary who is convinced that Peter poisoned her.

The script is peppered with the standard Allen one-liners. They fly by so quickly they are like sight gags in a Zucker comedy, and some work better than others. You can’t ignore them because a few of them actually contain clues. Allen’s gags haven’t worked this well in a long time and Johansson delivers her share of them with a screwball zip no other director has discovered in her. She plays a character here, something she’s not always done in the past, and this is the first time I’ve ever been impressed by her work.

Jackman doesn’t have much to do except look terrific until later in the film as we begin to wonder whether or not suspicions about Peter have some truth to them, but he does manage to maintain a combination of likable upper crustness and secrets kept hidden.

Allen’s doofus Splendini is defined by the neurotic jitters that have always been the major component of his screen persona, and if that stammering idiocy makes you want to scream, you’re certainly not alone. It’s the thing that will keep a lot of people from seeing this picture, and that’s a shame because before “Scoop” is finished it turns into a pretty taut little thriller. The gags are never far from the surface, but you do come to care about these characters enough so that you want everything to turn out well for them.

Okay, you can’t talk about a Woody Allen comedy without pointing out your favorite joke. In the beginning, we see the dead reporter and a group of other dearly departed on a boat moving slowly down what we assume is the river Styx. At the helm is a dark, robed figure holding a scythe. The reporter steps up to him and asks in perfect innocence, “Where’re we going?”

It’s not much, but the set-up was so perfect, I burst out laughing.

It’s funny and it generates some solid suspense. If you want more than that, you may be out of luck.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.