The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Full review behind the jump


: Woody Allen
: Woody Allen
: Gareth Wiley, Letty Aronson
: Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen, Hugh Jackman, Ian McShane, Charles Dance, Romola Garai

Our culture has so internalized Woody Allen’s screen persona by now that we do a little too much of the work for him. If he’s the brilliant nerd consumed by worry and hormonal impetus who can’t catch a break, we oblige him by not giving him a break. When he makes a serious picture like last year’s
Match Point, he’s derided as pretentious for not making the enjoyable comedies of his early career. And when he makes a movie like Scoop which has no higher ambition than to make us laugh, he’s piled on for slumming it and not making more substantive movies like Match Point.

Few filmmakers can claim anywhere near the tonal and stylistic range, not to mention the sheer productivity, that Allen has demonstrated across a four decade career, and yet each new project is typically greeted by two reflexive criticisms: 1) “Woody always plays the same character”, and 2) “He should be making a (insert comedy or drama) instead of this (insert the other term here)”. Neither is substantively fair – did anyone ever pick on Bob Hope or Groucho Marx for playing “the same character” in every movie? And though his voice as a filmmaker and performer is consistent, the expanse of moods and facets of life he projects through that voice, the sheer number of stories he’s found the means to tell, deserves more respect than it gets.

He’s made great films, and
Scoop is not one of them. But he’s also made limp and wayward films, and Scoop is not one of them, either. It’s a pleasant diversion, a light workout for a writer/director still mindful of how to catch a laugh yet still willing to take a goofy chance or two.

It’s his second consecutive film to star the versatile young Scarlett Johansson and it’s clear that the filmmaker is infatuated. She’s an unschooled though eager enough participant in the shtick – she doesn’t come to the timing of a punchline naturally but charisma goes a long way. She plays Sondra Pransky, an American student with journalistic ambitions, a questionable grasp of investigative methods and an effortless sexual allure. She seems to have a pattern of missing the story but landing in bed. I think this is one of Allen’s methods of celebrating her classic beauty, it reminds me of one of cheesecake cinema’s best titles: the Jayne Mansfield vehicle The Girl Can’t Help It.

She goes with a friend to see a show put on by “Splendini” (Woody Allen), aka Sid Waterman, a hokey prestidigitator with a box full of fifty-year-old illusions and jokes that are older still. He invites Sondra to step into his Dematerializing Cabinet, and while she’s inside she receives a most supernatural career boost. The ghost of Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a real journalist in the classic drunken bloodhound mold, appears to her with a hot tip. It seems while biding his time on the ferry across the river Styx, he struck up a conversation with a woman who believes she was a victim of the feared Tarot Card Killer – a serial strangler stalking the young women of London. Her story has Strombel convinced that the killer is Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), the wealthy playboy son of Lord Lymon (Julian Glover). And a story like that is worth trying to put off the afterlife for a few days, even if he could have chosen better when it came to the vessel receiving his insight.

Not many would attempt such a deliberately odd marriage as fading specters and lowbrow card tricks meshing with a tale of murder in the upper class. And in the age of terrorists and torturers, the notion of a populace living in fear of a strangler is practically nostalgic. Despite that, and despite the blatant storytelling prop of Strombel, who can fade in and out whenever the plot needs goosing along, the whole contraption is somehow seaworthy, caulked together by Allen’s wit.

“Splendini” volunteers himself as a partner in the investigation, and poses as Sondra’s wealthy and eccentric father so they can infiltrate Lyman’s world. This affords Allen the opportunity to share his other new infatuation – the city of London – and to milk laughs from the sight of his miserable old entertainer self trying to fake respectability among the landed set. Inevitably, he turns to his deck of cards.

Johansson is in a tricky position, trying to portray artificially the warmly-daffy persona that early Allen heroines like Diane Keaton or (let’s go way back now) Louise Lasser possessed organically within themselves. I think with another movie she might just get it right. Allen himself is in full cranky bloom and can still score with his technique of finding no issue too minute to be worth talking obsessively around. In spite of past May-December flings in his films, in Scoop he’s never presented as a viable suitor for young Sondra; but he is, if you pay attention, actually a better investigator.

There I go again – it’s too, too easy to steer any discussion of a Woody Allen film into a discussion of Woody Allen. It’s as if we, the moviegoers, are acting as a therapist and he is our oldest and most bedeviling patient, forever spilling a bottomless imagination on us. It distracts me from mentioning the subtly-fine photography of Remi Adefarasin, Hugh Jackman’s performance as a most handsome and droll enigma, the way people familiar with Dreiser’s An American Tragedy will find themselves chuckling inappropriately when the scene takes us to a rowboat dock. Scoop presents much that is charming even as it’s hampered by much that is flawed. But consider the content I’ve described to you above, and ask yourself, just how many people out there are telling stories like this?


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