Tuesday, February 27, 2007


One step forward, two steps back

By Edward Copeland
I really miss Al Swearengen. After getting to watch Ian McShane's masterful work as Al on the three brief seasons of HBO's Deadwood, I can only hope that his career will produce better parts than the one he was saddled with here in Woody Allen's Scoop.

After coming back a bit from a more than decade-long slump with 2005's Match Point, Allen tumbles backward a bit with Scoop, though it is at least watchable and nowhere near as painful as some of his other recent efforts such as Hollywood Ending, Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Celebrity.

Allen casts Scarlett Johansson for the second film in a row, this time in a comic mystery as well as in a role that bears many similarities to Woody himself. He's done this tact a lot, but it always seems odd when he also appears in the film in question. Johansson plays an aspiring journalist visiting London and Allen plays a magician, who for some reason has been performing his act in London.

The two meet when he pulls her onstage as a volunteer for a trick where she enters a box only to disappear and then reappear. The catch? While in the box, she encounters the spirit of a prominent journalist (McShane), recently deceased in a car accident, who gives her the tip that a prominent member of British society (Hugh Jackman) also is the notorious Tarot Card Killer, who has been terrorizing the city's prostitutes for quite some time.

Since he can't land the story himself, he picks the young woman to be his surrogate and she drags the magician on her quest. Since the suspect in question is, after all, Hugh Jackman, Johansson inevitably falls heads over heels for him. With this light a confection, obviously the mystery isn't a puzzler or an attraction, so what's left is the comedy which, unfortunately, is tired. You see the jokes coming with almost as much clairvoyance as the best psychic solving the mystery.

That said, Scoop isn't painful to watch. It's still somewhat sad to see Allen struggling through this work without remembering the glories of his past. In one sequence, when he's driving a tiny silver car, it's hard not to think back to Sleeper and how much you'd rather be watching it. Still, what elicits the most sadness is McShane's presence. He's fine, but it's a nothing part and just makes any Deadwood fan long for the further episodes that we deserve.

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I know it's disappointing to see a Woody Allen movie not quite live up to expectations, but this was one of the funnier movies of 2006, excluding Borat and Tristram Shandy. Woody gives one of his better performances in a while, and he as an actor is the saving grace of the film. As for McShane, he wasn't ever really given a chance to do anything. He wasn't as bad as Scarlett or as good as Woody. I can't pine for Deadwood, since I've never seen any of it. No, Scoop is not as good as it could have been, but it's also better than many have given it credit for.
As I said, Scoop wasn't painful, but after Match Point raised hopes that maybe Allen was regaining his footing, I found it to be a disappointment, if not on the scale of some of his recent disasters. I still think it would be interesting if for a change Allen tried to direct someone else's script or to adapt some other source material because too many of his films seem recycled from parts of his other movies at this point.
Interesting you say that, considering Spike Lee's recent critical and popular success with Inside Man and considering how similar Match Point is to Crimes and Misdemeanors. Not that Match Point isn't great. What I'd like to see is Allen in a starring role in someone else's movie. I think Allen's shtick was enlivened by putting him so far out of his element, hobnobbing with the British upper crust. I'd like to see him do that somewhere else.
I agree that Match Point borrowed a lot from Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he managed to make it seem fresh. Scoop, despite the unfamiliar setting, didn't seem fresh at all. After all, how many films does this make for him now that involve magic or magicians and/or murder as a major plot point? I'm not sure Allen would work well as a lead in someone else's movie: See Scenes From a Mall for how that doesn't quite work, though I think he could do well in a supporting role in something else. Another idea I've had before is that perhaps he should let someone else direct one of his scripts for a switch.
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