Half Empty
By Elbert Ventura

Dir. Woody Allen, U.S., Focus Features

The pleasure you take in Scoop depends entirely on how much slack you're willing to cut Woody Allen. Has the reservoir of goodwill, left empty after a half-decade drought, been replenished by Match Point? Or have the accumulated disappointments of a faltering legend bred an enduring skepticism? Sad to say, Scoop is as limp, lazy, and inconsequential as any of Allen's trifles from the last dozen or so years. But then there are the laughs. Not huge ones, but plenty enough, and sustained throughout a breezy 90 minutes. At the center of it all is Woody himself, doing shtick we’ve seen so many times that it should be stale but isn’t. A jerrybuilt stage for a vintage performance, Scoop relies in no small part on Allen's timeless schlemiel, a love-him-or-hate-him icon that, at his funniest, can still salvage a blown scene or a ragged movie.

Scoop shows all the signs of being a rush job. Prolific as ever—Match Point opened just seven months ago—Allen has for some 15 years now let quantity overwhelm over quality. Scoop is no different from movies like Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Celebrity, and Small Time Crooks, which, though not without their distinct charms, were marred by the director’s inattention to detail. The same disinterestedness pervades Scoop, which dispenses with the hard task of creating believable characters, plausible relationships, and a credible plot.

In that regard, Match Point proved to be a false promise. His first British production, Match Point was his smoothest movie in a long time, a crisp, streamlined, and ambitious work that assured us that Allen, when he tried, could still put out premium-quality product. Scoop doesn’t take long to bring us down from that hopeful high. At a crowded London pub, friends toast Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a hard-charging journalist who has just died. How can you tell when a screenplay needs another draft? When friends giving eulogies sound like they read about the deceased that morning. Elsewhere in London, college reporter Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson, never remotely convincing as a Jewish co-ed from Brooklyn) corners an old film director in a hotel lobby and, as must happen when nubile women and old men meet in Allen's movies, sleeps with him. An act of authorial projection so gratuitous it had to have been winking—right?—the scene at least obviates the need for Allen and Johansson to so much as hold hands.

The murder mystery gets rolling in the netherworld. On a boat helmed by Death, Joe gets a hot tip from a murdered woman: Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), scion of a wealthy family, is a serial killer. Lead in hand, Joe jumps ship to file one last story. He ends up appearing to Sondra (don't ask), to whom he entrusts the scoop. With the help of Sidney Waterman (Allen), a magician whom Sondra befriends (really, don't ask), the journalist-manque tracks Lyman down and wangles an invite to a party at the estate. The snooping begins, but so does a romance, neither of which is remotely compelling.

It's effortless filmmaking—and not in a good way. Uninspired though Allen the director may be, Allen the performer is in peak form. As Sidney, Allen plays his now-familiar alter ego, a neurotic nebbish at once resentful and admiring of the well-heeled gentiles around him. Watching him collide with Brit blue bloods, you wonder why Allen had never thought about setting a comedy starring himself in London earlier. (Two bits, one involving sneaking into a posh sports club, the other a high-stakes poker game, are legitimate contenders as Woody classics.) And it's not so much his lines but his delivery—that overeager stutter, that nervous flurry of tics—that could be considered bad acting if it were acting at all. Transplanted to a milieu even more rarefied than the Upper East Side's salons, the fish-out-of-water routine travels well and enlivens the movie.

Not to say that Scoop, as a comedy, isn't hit-or-miss. Gone are the days when a Woody Allen movie would contain only a groaner or two. But the clunkers aren't even the worst of it. A murder mystery bled of any tension, Scoop features expository dialogue that would appall the worst screenwriting student—and test the best actor. Each of the major players falters at one point or another with Allen's words, evidence of another failing in late-period Allen: indifference to actors. Johansson and Jackman both flail in their roles, the director’s slack approach an impediment to the honing of performance. (It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that director's haphazard methods were the source of the reported tensions between Sean Penn and Allen on the set of Sweet and Lowdown.) Exacerbating the problem is Allen’s use of long takes. More a first resort for a slapdash filmmaker than a rigorous aesthetic choice, Scoop’s prolonged takes only underscore the weaknesses of unseasoned performers. The movie's problems extend to its sexual politics—for the second movie in a row, Allen’s narrative turns on the rash actions of rich men harried by needy women.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Allen unwittingly got at the paradox of his work. On the one hand, he was unsurprisingly hard on himself, revealing high standards that led him to severely underrate his own oeuvre (he admitted to liking only three or four of his movies). On the other hand, there was the equally unsurprising admission that he is a lazy filmmaker. “If I'm shooting a film and it's six o'clock at night and I've got a take, and I think I might be able to get a better take if I stayed, but the Knicks tipoff is at 7:30, then that's it,” he said. If Scoop is any proof, it seems that, despite a lousy season, Allen made it back home for every Knicks game.

If you come to the movie unburdened with fondness for the Woodman, you may see nothing but an unfunny mess. Those of us who elevated him to the pantheon long ago might be more charitable, shaking our heads at its patchiness, yet lapping up its singular, shallow pleasures. Is that enough? I can't in good conscience call Scoop a good movie, but I can't say I didn't enjoy it either. Yet there is a whiff of wistfulness in the laughter. It comes from knowing that diverting mediocrities are now the rule, not the exception, for a once relevant filmmaker.