Maybe it was just too soon. Maybe after coming back so strongly with last year's bracing morality thriller Match Point, Woody Allen should have taken a year or so off. Caught up on his reading, taken care of the garden, whatever. But, being the manically productive filmmaker that he is, he had to follow up his best film in years almost immediately after with another one, Scoop, featuring his newest favorite leading lady Scarlett Johansson (we are many years removed from the Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton phases), and a 180-degree turn in mood. No icy tension or investigations of ethical behavior this time, just hijinks and one-liners -- though for the second time in a row, the most famously New York-centric filmmaker sets the action in London. As Allen's character in Scoop notes, the restaurants are great, and the theater's better.
Taking a page from his last truly funny frivolous comedy, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Allen puts a pair of fairly clueless but nosy characters in the middle of a murder mystery and hopes that their bickering will carry the day. It almost does. Johansson is a long way from her previous Allen role as a soulless social-climber, playing this time American journalism student Sondra Pransky, who's so awkward and out of her element that, in order to get a story, she sleeps with a famous actor, and then forgets to get the interview. Johansson's better at playing daffy than one might expect, and unlike films like The Devil Wears Prada -- where a bad sweater and bangs are supposed to make Anne Hathaway some sort of hideous ogre -- this one doesn't pretend that she's unattractive behind the big glasses and careless hair.
Allen is Sid Waterman, a nervous and none-too-good magician, with the tattered nom de plume Splendini. In a rather clumsily handled setup, during his act he invites Pransky on stage for a magic act, whereupon she's confronted by the ghost of recently dead legendary investigative journalist Joe Strombel (Ian McShane, in full rake mode), who breathlessly gives her the scoop of a lifetime (he found out about it in the afterlife, so can't get the byline himself): the Tarot Card Killer terrorizing London is none other than the rich, royal, famous, and quite popular Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman). It's more meet-weird than meet-cute, but it gets things moving nicely at the start, and allows Allen a mordantly funny scene where Strombel finds himself on a boat crossing the River Styx.
Given Pransky's habit of falling into the wrong beds and Lyman being, well, Hugh Jackman with a royal title, she uses herself as the bait to get into Lyman's pants and good graces to flush out the truth. Meanwhile, Waterman kvetches about her insane theories and predicts disaster ("I see the glass half-full -- only it's full of poison"). Scoop is really just an excuse for Allen and Johansson to run around London and play sleuth, a bickering sort of semi-adult Hardy boy/Nancy Drew duo who pretend to be father and daughter in order to fool the Brits (not too bright a bunch, it appears). Some viewers will have more of an appetite for this than others, though the worst one can ultimately say of it is that it's typical late-period Allen, with all the attractive cinematography, fine acting, and only semi-funny jokes that that entails -- less enjoyable, say, than Small Time Crooks but a far sight better than The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Although that means Allen knocks out a few decent lines (as he and Johansson puzzle the case out, she says, "If you put our heads together, you'd get a hollow sound"), if one of the best things one can say about a film is that it's funnier than Jade Scorpion, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Double vanilla, we guess.