London murder mystery


Well, basically, in this movie, I don’t have claws. Or do I? Ah, you see the treachery of it! Jolly good.

Well, basically, in this movie, I don’t have claws. Or do I? Ah, you see the treachery of it! Jolly good.

Rated 4.0

Having gotten the sour seriousness out of his system once again with the stylish but unpleasant and overrated Match Point, Woody Allen’s latest movie, Scoop, takes him back to what he does best. Or, at least, what he does second-best.

Allen’s best movies—Annie Hall, Radio Days, Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway, for example—have been the ones in which the comedy was front and center but cooled and complemented by a reflective melancholy. When the melancholy boils over into overt misanthropy—say, with Crimes and Misdemeanors or the almost unbelievably nasty Husbands and Wives—Allen starts taking himself much too seriously, like a drunk snarling, “What are you laughing at? Don’t you know we’re all gonna die someday?!” (Most clowns, they say, want to play Hamlet; Allen sometimes doesn’t seem satisfied unless he’s channeling Samuel Beckett.) Between these two extremes is Allen when he’s just being funny—in his early movies Take the Money and Run and Bananas, of course, but also Mighty Aphrodite, Small Time Crooks and Broadway Danny Rose. Scoop is firmly in that pleasantly trifling tradition.

The first major character we meet in Scoop is the one who’s dead: Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a crusading and legendary London reporter, felled by a massive heart attack (too much booze and tobacco, no doubt). Newshound that he is (or was), Joe is still at it even on the boat sailing into the afterlife, trying to bribe the Grim Reaper into telling him where they’re going. Then, a chance conversation with a female passenger on that same voyage across the River Styx puts Joe onto a real scoop: The woman is convinced that she was murdered by her boss, upper-class scion and rising political star Peter Lyman, because she was about to disclose that he might be the notorious “Tarot Card” serial killer.

Joe sees at once that this is the story of a lifetime, and he’s not about to let it drop just because he’s already dead. So, he quietly slips over the side of the boat to make his way back to the land of the living. The glint in his eyes tells us he isn’t sure what he’s going to do, but he’ll think of something; after all, he’s Joe Strombel.

Meanwhile, back in London, we meet Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson at her most effervescent and endearing), an American journalism student visiting some well-to-do British friends. As a reporter, she’s been something of a washout: An attempt to interview a famous film director results in her simply becoming another notch in his bedpost on the way out of the hotel. But one night, at a performance of a small-time magician calling himself the Great Splendini (real name Sid Waterman, played by Allen at his most jittery and neurotic), she volunteers for the vanishing-cabinet trick, and in the cabinet she comes face to face with Joe Strombel. Joe sends her off on the trail of suspect Peter Lyman, and she takes along a reluctant Sid, who has seen and heard Joe himself.

Through her host family, Sondra contrives to introduce herself to Peter Lyman, a suave and dashing hunk played by Hugh Jackman. Masquerading as “Jade Spence” and passing the nervous Sid off as her father, Sondra works her way into Lyman’s social circle. At first, she busily hunts for clues while Sid remains skeptical. (“This man is no serial killer. I would be very surprised if he has killed even one person.”) But gradually, they switch perspectives: Sondra falls in love with Lyman and worries about having met him under false pretenses, while Sid becomes convinced of the man’s guilt. Besides, he’s enjoying the attention of Lyman’s aristocratic friends (“I was raised in the Hebrew faith, but when I got older I converted to Narcissism”).

It isn’t telling too much to say that Scoop’s mystery is satisfying without being particularly complicated or surprising. Like Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, there are some unexpected developments, and the two amateur detectives find themselves uncovering a crime somewhat different from the one they thought they were investigating. And that is probably as much as I should reveal in that direction.