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Thread: Woody Allen: Scoop (2006)

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    Woody Allen: Scoop (2006)

    Woody Allen: Scoop

    A dash of light entertainment


    Review by Chris Knipp

    Scoop is also the name of a late-Thirties Evelyn Waugh novel, and Woody Allen's new movie, though set today, has a nostalgic charm and simplicity. It hasn't the depth of characterization, intense performances, suspense or shocking final frisson of Allen's penultimate effort Match Point, (argued by many, including this reviewer, to be a strong return to form) but Scoop does closely resemble Allen's last outing in its focus on English aristocrats, posh London flats, murder, and detection. This time Woody leaves behind the arriviste murder mystery genre and returns to comedy, and is himself back on the screen as an amiable vaudevillian, a magician called Sid Waterman, stage moniker The Great Splendini, who counters some snobs' probing with, "I used to be of the Hebrew persuasion, but as I got older, I converted to narcissism." Following a revelation in the midst of Splendini's standard dematerializing act, with Scarlett Johansson (as Sondra Pransky) the audience volunteer, the mismatched pair get drawn into a dead ace English journalist's post-mortem attempt to score one last top news story. On the edge of the Styx Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) has just met the shade of one Lord Lyman's son's secretary, who says she was poisoned, and she's told him the charming aristocratic bounder son Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) was the Tarot Card murderer, a London serial killer. Sondra and Sid immediately become a pair of amateur sleuths. With Sid's deadpan wit and Sondra's bumptious beauty they cut a quick swath through to the cream of the London aristocracy.

    Woody isn't pawing his young heroine muse -- as in Match Point, Johansson again -- as in the past. This time moreover Scarlett's not an ambitious sexpot and would-be movie star. She's morphed surprisingly into a klutzy, bespectacled but still pretty coed. Sid and Sondra have no flirtation, which is a great relief. They simply team up, more or less politely, to carry out Strombel's wishes by befriending Lyman and watching him for clues to his guilt. With only minimal protests Sid consents to appear as Sondra's dad. Sondra, who's captivated Peter by pretending to drown in his club pool, re-christens herself Jade Spence. Mr. Spence, i.e., Woody, keeps breaking cover by doing card tricks, but he amuses dowagers with these and beats their husbands at poker, spewing non-stop one-liners and all the while maintaining, apparently with success, that he's in oil and precious metals, just as "Jade" has told him to say.

    That's about all there is to it, or all that can be told without spoiling the story by revealing its outcome. At first Allen's decision to make Johansson a gauche, naively plainspoken, and badly dressed college girl seems not just unkind but an all-around bad decision. But Johansson, who has pluck and panache as an actress, miraculously manages to carry it off, helped by Jackman, an actor who knows how to make any actress appear desirable, if he desires her. The film actually creates a sense of relationships, to make up for its limited range of characters: Sid and Sondra spar in a friendly way, and Peter and Sondra have a believable attraction even though it's artificial and tainted (she is, after all, going to bed with a suspected homicidal maniac).

    What palls a bit is Allen's again drooling over English wealth and class, things his Brooklyn background seems to have left him, despite all his celebrity, with an irresistible hankering for. Jackman is an impressive fellow, glamorous and dashing. His parents were English, but could this athletic musical comedy star raised in Australia (X-Man's Wolverine) really pass as an aristocrat? Only in the movies, perhaps (here and in Kate and Leopold).

    This isn't as strong a film as Match Point, but to say it's a loser as some viewers have is quite wrong. It has no more depth than a half hour radio drama or a TV show, but Woody's jokes are far funnier and more original than you'll get in any such media affair, and sometimes they show a return to the old wit and cleverness. It doesn't matter if a movie is silly or slapdash when it's diverting summer entertainment. On a hot day you don't want a heavy meal. The whole thing deliciously evokes a time when movie comedies were really light escapist entertainment, without crude jokes or bombastic effects; without Vince Vaughan or Owen Wilson. Critics are eager to tell you this is a return to the Allen decline that preceded Match Point. Don't believe them. He doesn't try too hard. Why should he? He may be 70, but verbally, he's still light on his feet. And his body moves pretty fast too.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-29-2006 at 11:52 PM.

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    GREETINGS FROM MERIDA, IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA!!!!

    Who knows...I may end up watching this if there isn't anything truly appealing as an alternative. It's been ages since I watched a real good movie by Woody Allen. Fans of Match Point: give SEPARATE LIES a chance and you'll get a taste of the real Brit-love-triangle thing. ADIOS AMIGOS!!!

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    In spite of looking down on it in advance, you could do worse than watch Scoop, even south of the border.

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    In which Woody Allen plays a character that could have been transplanted from Broadway Danny Rose who, as in Manhattan Murder Mystery and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, teams up with a Gentile femme for some amateur snooping and sleuthing. Yes, it's a relief that Allen realizes any romance between them would be risible, but the relationship between Sondra and Sid generates little tension or interest. If there's anything original about Scoop, it rests on Allen casting himself as a pseudo-father figure to his female co-star. Yet Allen, the writer, doesn't know how to exploit the inherent possibilities of such a pair. Unlike The Purple Rose of Cairo, the metaphysical liberties taken in Scoop (Strombel's apparitions) are mere devices to advance the plot. To those who find the premise of Scoop promising or appealing, I recommend you skip it and rent the similarly-themed Manhattan Murder Mystery instead. It features a great comedic actress, Diane Keaton, in one of her best roles.

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    You're within your rights, but I still think it was a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours and I'd rather go out than stay at home and watch a TV screen. If you're going to recommend classic Woody Allen, I'd exchew Manhattan Murder Mystery in favor of Annie Hall or Bananas etc., go back to the classic moments -- not to 1992..

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    I'd rather go out than stay at home and watch a TV screen.

    Who wouldn't. My point is that Scoop is not worth seeing.

    If you're going to recommend classic Woody Allen, I'd exchew Manhattan Murder Mystery in favor of Annie Hall or Bananas etc., go back to the classic moments -- not to 1992..

    What Allen attempts and fails to accomplish with Scoop is very similar in tone and plot to what he achieved in Manhattan Murder Mystery. For starters, the latter is funnier and makes you care more about the characters. Moreover, there's a tension between the sleuthing duo missing from Scoop's Sondra and Sid. And Diane Keaton is simply better at this type of material than Ms. Johansson (who's got a couple of new pictures ready for release, by the way).

    Regarding "classic Woody Allen", I'll provide links to two posts from 2003: Woody Allen
    Annie Hall remains his best picture. It's also the first of his films in which there was more to the narrative than an excuse to incorporate his comic persona and string admittedly very funny one-liners. The films that preceded Annie Hall (Bananas included) are funny and worth-seeing but not the works of a mature filmmaker and not "classic". And that's one guy's opinion.

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    I know what you're saying, my man, and you have every right to say it, but I think Scoop is worth seeing and I enjoyed it. I would have to say our tastes dont match on Woody because most likely (it's been a while) I'd prefer Bananas to Annie Hall, it made me laugh much more and I don't take to the Diane Keaton frumpy-chic look.

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    Scoop rhymes with droop.

    SCOOP
    Written and Directed by Woody Allen


    MATCHPOINT was a welcome and impressive return for Woody Allen as a director and a writer. Lush art direction and intuitive camera movement framed performances that brought Allenís best script in over a decade to a dangerously high boil. It was sensual and provocative with deeply layered imagery. It earned four Golden Globe nominations, an original screenplay Oscar nomination and made this criticís best film of 2006 short list. It now seems its success has spawned a somewhat awkward offshoot, a relationship between Allen and lead actress of both MATCHPOINT and Allenís latest picture, SCOOP, Scarlett Johansson. According to the SCOOP press (or perhaps a spirit appeared to me and told me about this while I was being dematerialized, I canít be sure), Johansson and Allen enjoyed their quick-witted off-screen banter so much that she felt it a shame that the two did not have any plans to work together on camera. I suppose its possible he too felt this was a sad situation, or I suppose its also possible he saw this as a great way to spend more intimate time with his new muse, but anyway you look at it, Allen decided to write a script that would feature the two as the filmís leads. And so SCOOP was born, the story of an American journalism student in London who is on the verge of uncovering the identity of the infamous tarot card serial killer and thus breaking a ginormous story that will give her budding career an enormous head start. Great for her but SCOOP negates in an hour a half all the momentum Allen regained in the first two brilliant minutes of MATCHPOINT. I laughed my way through SCOOP but most of the time I was laughing at the entirely ludicrous root of the story and Allenís obvious concessions in his script that were necessary to make it still questionably plausible.

    Is this exchange between Allen and Johansson really worth all this trouble? Admittedly, they play well off of each other, both in their limited capacities. Hers, despite exhibiting a drastically wide range of emotions in MATCHPOINT, is her sometimes-hollow comedic delivery and his is that distant, glassy look that comes naturally with age but here makes him look like heís drifting in and out of his senses. They meet when he calls her on stage. He is a magician; she is his unsuspecting audience member who must step into a box. Then, because it was in Allenís box that she first encounters a spirit that gives her the scoop while she is being dematerialized (now that earlier comment makes sense to you, doesnít it?), she insists on solving this mystery with Allenís help. They quickly become inseparable despite having any good reason to be in this caper together. He is constantly tripping over the lies the pair tells to get close to their suspect, often nearly ruining all their work. Meanwhile, he has no real stake to gain by helping her at all. A typical scene will have the two snapping back and forth, reaching points where they both alternately ask why they bother with the other, followed by the two inexplicably reconciling and eating dinner together.

    Allen has been directing films since the 1960ís. He should have been able to spot some fairly simple story adjustments that would have better justified the pairing of the two. Instead of perhaps lying to people about Allen being her father, maybe he could have just been written as her father. No way Daddy will walk away and let his daughter investigate a serial killer no matter how much she yells. Instead, Allen plays a relative stranger, leaving the only reason for them to spend time together being that they share some solid chemistry and the same sense of humour. Oh, that was the reason for writing this to begin with. And that glassy look that Allen sports onscreen also found its way off-screen. SCOOPís aesthetic elements are strained and clumsy. The set designed for the boat to Hades scenes (yes, you read correctly), looks cheap and static. It doesnít even appear as if the boat were moving amidst the abundant smoke from the machine off camera. The framing and camera work are also uncomfortable and sometimes amateurish. As I found it difficult to focus on anything other than the strange movement, I just became sad realizing the depth and purpose in MATCHPOINTís aesthetics may have been fleeting. Thank God Hugh Jackman is on hand as the suspected serial killer to distract with his effortless talent and impeccably smooth good looks.

    It isnít entirely fair to repeatedly compare SCOOP to its predecessor, MATCHPOINT, but I cannot comprehend how the same person directed the two. MATCHPOINT has so much cunning and energy whereas SCOOP suffers from Allenís longtime philosophy that there is no reason why he cannot unleash one movie every year. Hereís the reason, Woody. The result is a rushed work full of holes that expose it as a weak excuse to indulge two actorsí egos. Chemistry alone does not a good movie make, especially when the chemistry in question is far from perfect. Um, see MATCHPOINT instead.
    I have no idea what I'm doing but incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm.
    - Woody Allen

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    Thanks, Mouton....

    Excellent job of reviewing which is at the same time both informative and keen in its analysis. I winced a bit at the repeated references to Woody's "glassy eyed" condition as an aging person because I'm no youngster myself and I think Woody's pretty lively in this piece for a seventy-year-old, but the whole question of why he should be paired with a young woman like this without being her actual father (you're right--it would have been more plausible if he were made that) gets into painful biographical and ad hominem areas where I do not want to go. I think you're right also in emphasizing that this is really an offshoot of the production of Match Point, a spinoff if you will, and indeed something with much less voltage in every way. While you're also quite right about Hugh Jackman saving the day and your description of what he provides is just and accurate, Rhys Meyers, I would add, is a big element in the greater excitement of the other movie and in its greater success. He has a neediness and energy that enlivens the plot and his Chris Wilton is not the usual sort of Woody Allen character at all. You could almost say Jackman, as a rich suave aristo, is not only more conventional but also more of a Woody-surrogate, a stand in, somebody Woody might like to be. It's too bad we have to get into all this personal analysis, but it's inevitable with an auteur who's the main character in so many of his films and makes his character a comic version of his real self. The boat on the Styx being "static" I think isn't a fault: it's obviously a convention, like any deus ex machina element in traditional drama. The whole spirit intervention thing is completely artificial and you either accept it or you don't, making the scenery more realistic or more elaborate isn't going to save it for a literal viewer. But this part of the plot is admittedly clunky even for me nonetheless. Why then did I speak so favorably of Scoop? For two reasons: (1) I had a good time (but you also say you laughed) and (2) it is being unnecessarily trashed, considering that in my view it is still while not up to Woody's best, better than a number of his recent flops. A seventy-year-old who wants to go on making movies and has just made a pretty cool one after a long slump (Match Point) deserves some encouagement, not to be jumped on.

    Of course Match Point was good because it was a change, and a change was needed. Scoop is a repeat, as Oscar has pointed out, of elements in Manhattan Murder Mystery.

    But Woody will go on making movies anyway no matter what reviews he gets, because he has to make them to banish "depression and terror." The need to keep those at bay doesn't lessen as one ages.

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    Chris, as usual, your responses are appreciated and challenging. You are right, I did enjoy SCOOP. It did amuse me greatly, much like MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (a particular Woody favorite of mine). Aside from MATCHPOINT, MMM would be the easiest comparison piece. SCOOP is also, in retrospect, much better than most of the films that came in the years leading up to MATCHPOINT.

    the whole question of why he should be paired with a young woman like this without being her actual father (you're right--it would have been more plausible if he were made that) gets into painful biographical and ad hominem areas where I do not want to go
    I find it fitting that you don't want to go there but SCOOP makes it very hard not to. The difference in age between Johansson and Allen and the relationship between them that led to SCOOP's creation can not help but make reference to his personal life. And even as I contemplated why he did not write his character as her father, I could see quite clearly what he was trying to avoid from the public.

    Why then did I speak so favorably of Scoop? For two reasons: (1) I had a good time (but you also say you laughed) and (2) it is being unnecessarily trashed, considering that in my view it is still while not up to Woody's best, better than a number of his recent flops. A seventy-year-old who wants to go on making movies and has just made a pretty cool one after a long slump (Match Point) deserves some encouagement, not to be jumped on.
    The point you raise here is probably my only concern for my own review. I feel like my written opinion on SCOOP is possibly more harsh than I actually felt. It was light and enjoyable but I always have a tendency of raising the bar higher than perhaps is warranted for those I truly respect.

    Thanks again, Chris, for your praise. I also very much enjoyed your review.
    I have no idea what I'm doing but incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm.
    - Woody Allen

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    Thanks for saying that--we've communicated well on this...It's often hard to get one's review to reflect precisely how one feels, and still make the points one considers important to make-- because, say, others have neglected to make them. I think that happened a little bit for you this time. You made the points, and that somewhat tended to undercut your actual pleasure in watching Scoop. There's also sometimes a tension between what one enjoys, and what one knows objectively to be good. The "guilty pleasures" category is the extreme example. I think we all also need to relate a filmmaker's stuff both to the general current movie scene and to his or her work as a whole, something that reviewers surprisingly often in their haste neglect to do thoroughly. It's a juggling act.

    Hope you will be able to contribute more of your excellent reviews on the site in the near future. I'd like to see your name up here more often.

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    Released this past week on DVD
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