Woody’s back. This time as the lounge show magician/vaudevillian working the rooms somewhere off the Strip (the London SoHo district) with worn out card tricks and tired old jokes. Allen’s character (Sid Waterman) takes us back to the old days when Woody’s characters offered a vehicle to satirize himself. You just can’t watch a vintage Allen movie, when he is one of the cast, without ever forgetting it is Allen playing himself in the guise of a character.
When I was younger, my friends and I looked forward to the release of another Allen film with himself as actor/director/writer. We’d go out afterward for free–association chatter and coffee, and imitate Allen dialogue, searching for the perfect existential humor.
Scoop offered light and fun fare and continues a current love affair that Allen seems to have with British aristocracy. As he stands in the palatial manor of Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) admiring an old family portrait, Sid comments, “Brings to mind Trollop” to which Peter answers, “You’ve read Trollop?” “No” says Sid, “it’s a girl I used to date.”
Remember Allen’s 1975 tribute to all the heavy handed Russian literary greats in Love and Death? Compared to Scoop those early films were graduate work humor. Or the Bermanesque Interiors, Allen’s departure crossover into drama (although his humor is always a punch line away from tragedy anyway).
Sid and Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) are the two Americans in London, Sondra a young journalism major (aka dental hygienist) and Sid a magician/vaudevillian, a throwback to the Catskills in the fifties. Still in the grips of Berman symbolism, Allen has the film open with a group of dead people crossing the River Styx, except in this case, more resembling an old tuna trawler lost in the steamy evening tropics. On board is Joe Stombel (Ian McShane – when I see him, I can’t get Macbeth out of my mind) who later reappears as a ghost on stage with–you guessed it–Sid and Sondra and the game is on.
Scoop is a murder mystery, but you’ll find more intricate plots in Murder She Wrote.
Allen has had his share of adorable and young co-stars (Tea Leoni in Hollywood Ending and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan) but Allen was younger then and with Johansson–thank goodness–they are a father/daughter duo, albeit, undercover.
Sid and Sondra continue the Allen tradition of non-stop banter ala Allen/Keaton and Allen/ Farrow, although the older Allen (he’s 71) seems to stammer and search for words with authentic desperation. Commenting on his own ability to eat without gaining weight, Sid says, “my anxiety acts like aerobics”. Johansson is a worthy partner. The two try to solve the identity of “the tarot card killer” at the same time answering (as Garrison Keillor would say) life’s more persistent questions.
The Brits stay in light character throughout. Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the suspect. Sid and Sondra slip into their lives and dazzle them with real and verbal card tricks; something of a high-brow Hope/Crosby road movie. One exchange at a garden party between Sid and a high society English woman: Sid–And what persuasion are you? Woman–Oh, I’m Christian, and yourself? Sid–(with hesitation) I was raised in the Hebrew faith but I converted to narcissism. And later, at a poker game at the “club”: Sid–I once used my poker winnings to buy a Rubens. Another player–you bought a painting by Rubens? Sid–no, a sandwich.
When I saw the credit for Charles Dance at the film’s beginning, it raised my hope (I loved him in “Gosford Park”) but he had a woefully small part, toward the end. In fact, except for Hugh Jackman, don’t expect to see anyone else with significant parts. It’s the off-handed exchanges between Allen and Johansson that keep the film moving toward a predictable finish (with one twist) and leave us laughing here and there throughout. Like watching a funny Jewish couple (the Scandinavian Johansson a Jew from Brooklyn?) follow each other around the house.
It’s good to see the old Woody back. That sad, hound-dog, beleaguered face is still in fine form. I think I’ll invite someone to coffee and see if we can be Allen and Johansson for a while. My stammering will be equally as authentic.