Film: Blinded by the Muse

Woody Allen cranks out an unpolished vehicle for Scarlett Johansson

Focus Features

Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson star in Scoop, Woody Allen's latest love letter to London.

Scoop finds Scarlett Johansson as Sondra Pransky, a nerdy and naive student journalist in London who's lured into the story of a lifetime. But only if she can prove that son-of-privilege Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the Tarot Card serial killer that a voice from the dead tells her he is. Woody Allen's character Sid Waterman is an ex-pat magician living in London who teams up with Sondra pretending to be her goofy father in order to help her solve the case.

Scoop might not rise to the narrative ingenuity of Match Point, but it does capture Johansson paraphrasing Allen's signature amusing rhythms in a lilting little comedy that makes England look like heaven on earth.

Allen supposedly wrote Scoop specifically for Johansson after their work together on Match Point. It's the first time in four years (since Hollywood Ending) that he has written himself an acting part, and his writing efforts here seem too rushed and reliant on his cliché knee-jerk comic mannerisms and plot devices to be effective. As writer, director and actor, Allen borrows so liberally from himself that anyone familiar with his movies will experience twinges of déjà vu in nearly every other scene.

Allen sets a droll comic tone for the piece with Ian McShane (Deadwood) playing Joe Strombel, a recently deceased UK newspaper reporter who jumps ship from the boat that Death steers across the River Styx after discovering from a murder victim that Peter Lyman is most certainly the Tarot Card killer. There's a literary snap to the darkly comic imagery, and McShane creates an energetic stir with his whimsical performance.

Enter the bespectacled Johansson to create Woody's gender-opposite alter ego complete with a revving libido that quickly gets watered when she beds a Rock star she's assigned to interview for her college newspaper. Sondra Pransky might not complete her first assignment, but she does get gratification.

During a night out in London, Sondra finds herself picked from the audience at Sid Waterman's magic show to participate in a disappearing trick onstage. Once inside Waterman's trick box, Sondra finds the cramped quarters especially small when the ghost of Strombel appears and tells her that she should pursue the local serial killer story with Lyman as suspect No. 1. Sondra returns to Waterman's theater the next day to reenter the box in hopes of having another conversation with Strombel.

What follows is a series of signature Woody Allen jokes and plot set-ups where someone is snooping around in a room that they don't belong in. Hugh Jackman gives a serviceable if unfocused performance as the smitten Lyman, who seduces Sondra hook, line and sinker. Jackman's native Australian accent creeps into his attempts at high-class British intonation and the normally rooted actor seems at times in need of more direction than Allen is willing to provide.

Scoop is a throwaway movie that Allen seems to have dashed through. His dialogue falls flat more than it pops, and the ostensibly suspenseful narrative structure is barely more than a straight, predictable line. Allen is probably too stuck in his dated onscreen persona to perform in his own films anymore.

With Match Point he showed that he could still make an inventive movie. Perhaps he should focus more on his material and less on the muse. Grade: C