Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, and Woody Allen in <i>Scoop</i>.
Did you ever get the creeping sensation that the Woody Allen we've been watching since, oh, circa Soon-Yi isn't Woody Allen at all but an incredible life-like simulation? That the actual man is comfortably hidden-away on the Upper West Side of Manhattan gorging on old Bob Hope comedies right now, his sharp intelligence in place? And in lieu of the actual Allen, the replacement has done what every good imposter knows to do - he's let the persona become everything?
The hands flap (check).
The voice stammers (check).
But the jokes - dumb, lame.
Surely, this can't be Allen.
Not that I'm completely opposed to a vast celebrity body-snatching scheme (which I can't prove but I'm certain is real). It has its upside. Last winter Allen (or whomever) made Match Point, a first-rate comeback, but vaguely the work of someone who'd internalized Allen's 1989 drama Crimes and Misdemeanors, and who knew the steps by heart but couldn't deliver the gravitas of serious Woody. Now we have Scoop, which opens today, and is as hit-and-miss as any comedy he's made in years.
With a welcome difference:
This Woody has a grip.
He knows he's in decline. He's begun to ween himself off the ridiculous tics that were smothering his career and turning him into a self-parody. He works with his Match Point ingenue Scarlett Johansson again, and though he casts himself in the picture this time, he does not play her wise, older lover.
Huge relief. He's 70, she's 21 (younger than Annie Hall and Manhattan, mind you). He plays a vaudevillian magician named Splendini. Working in London (as is Allen, for the second time, another change for the New York City icon), Splendini plucks a young journalism student (Johansson) from his audience to be a volunteer. He puts her in a magic box and closes the door - which is when the ghost of a dogged British journalist (Ian McShane, of Dogwood) materializes in the box. Frustrated he's dead and can no longer follow a good lead, he implores her to look into a doozy.
Turns out, a British nobleman played by Hugh Jackman may be the elusive Tarot Card Killer - that's what Fleet Street's dubbed him, and anyway, it's a silly premise, but one ripe for a screwball farce. And one Allen thankfully doesn't mine for much meaning, though the device has come up twice before, in Deconstructing Harry and Play It Again, Sam. (Leave the after-life fetish for graduate film students to read into, after Allen's dead.)
I don't mean to say the Old Allen - a near mythical creature, remembered by fans and movie critics - has returned. The jokes rarely land the way they used to (it's shocking how many one-liners, from a master of one-liners, hang limp now). And Allen looks as adrift as ever. But to the degree Scoop fails, it's not an embarrassment. It's charming and breezy; if Allen's yammering has become grating and incessant, even that, to an extent, has some charm.
On the trail of the killer, Scarlet and Woody team up with infectious (though quickly tiresome) results, talking themselves into royal garden parties, making offhanded wisecracks at puzzled Brits, doing random card tricks for the noblemen - scenes that wouldn't be out of place in one of Allen's beloved Marx Bros. comedies. He poses as her father, wishful thinking at 70, but probably the most truth we'll get out of him. As for Johansson, she doesn't have the light touch of Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow - something tells me she should never be cast as a Jew from Brooklyn - but there's a movie-star shimmer around her that accentuates her purpose.
Which is to be a star, in the kind of enjoyable TCM-friendly fluff Allen grew up enjoying and still aspires to make. His instincts are sharp. Jackman, who rarely gets to act in his native accent and often stuck with tough-guy roles that seem a stretch, is allowed to reveal a surprising Cary Grant panache. And as for Allen, he's satisfied being comic relief, which is our relief, too. "I was born into the Hebrew persuasion," he says, "but when I got older I converted to narcissism."
Sounds like an epitaph to me.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com