England may not be just a passing phase for Woody Allen. Apparently having exhausted Manhattan as a movie subject, he took Scarlett Johansson to London last year to make “Match Point,” his most popular and acclaimed picture in years.
Johansson is back in his latest, “Scoop,” which was co-produced by BBC Films and makes the most of its elegant British locations. Once more the story is built around premeditated murder, with Johansson playing a naïve, self-centered American who gets in over her head.
Unfortunately, the results are not nearly as happy. This is one of Allen’s unremarkable crime comedies, like “Small Time Crooks” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” that pass the time pleasantly without breaking new ground or offering the actors much of a challenge.
It’s so similar to those films that Johansson sometimes seems to be impersonating Diane Keaton’s dithering character in “Mystery,” while Allen performs schtick familiar from several of his earlier comedies — especially “Love and Death,” which also featured a literal encounter with the Grim Reaper.
The Reaper turns up here to yank more than one character into the afterlife, beginning with Ian McShane as Joe Strombel, a sharp British investigative reporter who thinks he’s identified the Tarot Card Killer, a 21st century Jack the Ripper who’s been stalking women in London.
But Strombel is inconveniently dead by the time he’s made his scoop, so his spirit uses a pathetic magic show run by Sid Waterman (Allen) to communicate with a young journalism student, Sondra Pransky (Johansson). Strombel is certain that England’s Most Eligible Bachelor, the hunky aristocrat Peter Lyman, is the killer, so Sid and Sondra set out to expose him.
In the process, of course, Sondra falls for Peter. Since he’s played by Wolverine himself (a sometimes shirtless Hugh Jackman), and he seems devoted to her from the moment they meet, why not? As they drift into an affair — and as Sondra and Sid sift through Peter’s papers and visit his well-stocked wine cellar to spy on him — writer-director Allen achieves several playfully tense moments.
Unfortunately, the actor (or, more precisely, the comic) Allen tends to get in the way. Trading quips with Johansson about Metamucil, Alzheimer’s and the Woody Allen Anxiety Diet, he loses sight of the character he’s playing. One of the reasons “Match Point” worked so well was the absence of Allen’s distracting comic persona, which can wreck his more ambitious projects.
“If we put our heads together,” Sondra says to Sid at one point, “we’ll get a hollow sound.” Alas, that’s totally on the mark. The hollowness extends to the roles played by Jackman, McShane and Charles Dance (cast as a lecturing newspaper editor). In the end, they’re playing straight men to the comedy team of Woody and Scarlett.
“Scoop” is being promoted as a film “from the director of ‘Match Point’’’ — an awkward acknowledgement that Allen hasn’t had much else to brag about lately. It won’t offend his fans, but it’s not likely to win him many new ones.