Recently, I've been on a Woody Allen retrospect kick. My Netflix queue is overflowing with his past works, back when they were funny (Bananas), back when they were challenging (Crimes and Misdemeanors), back when they were insightful and moving (Hannah and Her Sisters), back when they were works of sheer genius (Zelig), back when they were great.
Those were the days.
Last winter, Allen made a welcome return to those days with the release of Match Point, an absorbing, meticulously-crafted thriller that seemed completely out of character for him. Shot in London, it was Allen's first film to be completely set outside U.S. borders, and was about as far away from his beloved Manhattan as he could get without sacrificing all things cosmopolitan. Match Point marked a stunning artistic comeback for the director who had spent the last few years tossing out such bombs as Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Melinda and Melinda. Allen, it seemed, had reconnected with his muse.
Pooper scoopers: Jackman, Johansson and Allen
With Scoop, the second England-set picture from Allen, the muse has performed a full-scale abandonment. A sloppily-made, clumsily-crafted romantic comedy, Scoop is completely devoid of anything remotely resembling pleasure. It's a pointless, muddled hash. And not a very funny one at that.
The premise plays out with all the lightness of a funeral service. Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), an eager young college reporter on a trip to London is approached by the ghost of Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a recently deceased reporter. The visitation initially occurs while she's volunteering for a Chinese box trick during a performance of a jittery, cheeseball magician called Splendini (Allen). Later visitations seem to happen anywhere that's convenient. Joe informs Sondra that, in death, he may have learned the identity of ''The Tarot Card Killer,'' a murderer brutally dispatching London's prostitutes. Joe believes the killer to be Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), the dashing, dull son of a upper-class lord. Joe tasks Sondra to investigate -- ''Get it first, but get it right'' -- and she enlists Splendini (real name Sid Waterman) to help her.
The movie is Manhattan Murder Mystery with a pinch of Broadway Danny Rose, but it's nowhere as entertaining as either of those Allen flicks. A lethargy plagues Scoop, which has a fumbling, disjointed quality, as though it had been hurled together by the director over the course of a three-day weekend.
You used to be able to count on great performances in Allen's films, but those on display in Scoop fall this side of humiliating. Allen, in particular, embarrasses himself beyond all hope. He's getting too old for his neurotic, hands-flailing shtick. And he's certainly no longer romantic lead material, which, of course, used to be one of his best jokes -- the nebbish as world-class lothario. Be thankful Allen doesn't let his character show prurient interest in Johansson -- even ol' Woody is smart enough to know that would be creepy, befitting an episode of The Outer Limits. Since his screen persona has ceased to be amusing, his presence in Scoop acts as an irritant, like a mosquito or a hemorrhoid.
Johansson's performance is astonishing in that it's simultaneously broad and flat. In another universe, her comic timing, if you can call it that, might be considered deadly. Here it's just brain-numbing. As for Jackman, he's far more engaging as the mutton-chopped Wolverine from the X-Men movies. Here, he seems somewhat less than virile, as though he'd been mainlining estrogen. It's hard enough to envision his Peter Lyman as a serial killer, let alone a romantic swoon for Sondra. But swoon she does, and he swoons back. Their romance has all the juice of a dead battery.
Esteemed British actors Kevin McNally (so terrific in the current Pirates blockbuster), Anthony Head and Julian Glover make appearances, but the only actor who creates a lasting impression is Charles Dance. It's been years since we've seen Dance on screen (according to IMDB, he's been busy with a swarm of British TV projects), and, as the editor of a London daily, the actor delivers a two-minute instructive soliloquy that, for a brief, fleeting moment, elevates Scoop to a higher plane.
Visually, Scoop has an odd yellow hue to it, as though cinematographer Remi Adefarasin filmed the action through a urine sample. The actors all look as though they're in advanced stages of hepatitis.
When I watched Bananas a few weeks ago, I laughed my ass off, all the while admiring the raw hilarity of the jokes and the absurd, illogical wackiness of the situations (the Wayans Brothers, Will Ferrell, the creators of the wonderful TV show Scrubs, and anybody else involved in today's comedy of the madcap owes a enormous debt to the Woody of yore). Bananas was little more than a 90-minute non sequitur, but god, was it hilarious. The scene in a South American roadside deli, where Allen's character orders takeout for 1,000, on its own busts your gut beyond repair. Scoop, on the other hand, doesn't even try to bust your gut. It fails to evoke one laugh over the course of 90 minutes, revealing Allen's sense of humor to be not merely ailing, but dead -- completely, utterly, forever dead.