"I am not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens." -- Woody Allen.

Film “I think I'll let the film marinate in my memory for a few months so that I can enjoy the dvd release even more.” -- From my review of Match Point

I was something of a fair-weather fan of Woody Allen’s first film produced in London, Match Point, loving it on cinema release then seeing it’s many flaws rather more closely on the small screen. It was a curiously nervous concoction, melodramatic elements usually so effortlessly pulled off in a New York setting seeming rather arch and artificial against the backdrop of our nation’s capital. His follow-up Scoop offers many of the same problems, but on this occasion the directing is far more assured, the material more clearly focused and overall has nothing which would indicate why it shouldn’t have been released here considering what has been released here lately, especially considering the cast.

During conjurer Woody Allen’s magic show, a volunteering student journalist Scarlett Johansson is given a tip-off by a recently passed now ghostly legendary Fleet Street hack Ian McShane that Hugh Jackman, an old money British aristocrat is the notorious Tarot serial killer. Chasing the story, Johansson pretending to be American money, becomes involved with Jackman with Allen in tow pretending to be her father and as they say with hilarious consequences. This is Allen returning to territory previously investigated in Manhattan Murder Mystery although this a far lighter on complications and heavier with the farce despite in the end cover much the same investigation of the British class structure as Match Point.

Having obviously lived with the city for a while, Allen spends far less time here presenting a tourist view of London at least in terms of exteriors with only The Royal Albert Hall returning to create a thematic connection with the earlier film. It’s certainly an example of old fashioned film making with scenes and shots which run for far longer than contemporary audiences are used to in a comedy, with perfectly planned tracking shots and push ins -- I don’t think he uses a steady cam or hand held at all.

The performances too are often theatrical but not necessarily in a bad way -- bucking the latest trends, everyone is in a character role. Johansson surprisingly reproduces the younger Allen avatar previously essayed by the likes of John Cusack and Jason Biggs, almost copying Woody tick for tick and often displaying excellent comic timing -- if they don’t always quite gel it's because Allen usually works best when he’s against a 'straight' person and I don’t know that he’s ever found anyone quite as good as Diane Keaton. Hugh Jackman just about works as an aristo, giving his British accent another airing. But it is Ian McShane who steals the show making such an exquisitely oily impression as the hack that you spend much of the film hoping for his re-appearance.

A recurring element in many of Allen’s films is the supernatural and here it is again, as McShane’s character first appears on a barge drifting towards the afterlife trying to bribe its helmsman Death into giving him a second chance (an image which mixes Bergman and Powell and Pressburger). There are also the aforementioned Tarot cards and Allen’s own character’s profession all recalling everything from Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Oedipus Wrecks. It’s this artifice which saves the film from being accused of being unrealistic at least in terms of its story and resolution; it’s all purposefully old fashioned, the music too, a return to the classical music of Match Point, the main theme being ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Peer Gynt.

If there’s a problem it’s that unlike even Match Point you’re never quite as involved in the action as you could be. To an extent it is because these are character performances and so Johansson’s character isn’t quiet as likeable as she needs to be and in some places the Allen approach to Englishness becomes a bit distracting. But I did laugh all of the way through, admittedly at some of the blink and you’ll miss them cameos from a range of British actors obviously just happy to be in a Woody Allen film (yes, that was Linda Baron dashing into a room and yes indeed Richard Briers and Toby Jones saying nothing on the Death barge), but more often at the one-liners and bits of farce. If we can never have the Woody Allen of Annie Hall back, this will do.

Cassandra's Dream, Woody's next film is slated for a UK release in the new year
. Finger's crossed it's a massive success (yeah, right) and then there's a chance that Scoop might yet be seen here and you'll be able to enjoy it for yourself without having to import it from Sweden, like I did.

1 comment:

Rob Buckley said...

Just watched this for the first time. I can understand why this went out on BBC2 eventually without a theatrical release since it looks like just about every made-for-BBC2 drama/movie shot since the 80s.

It took me a while to work out what everyone was doing - a screwball comedy of the mid 20th century, under cover of a BBC2-style film. That's why everyone's acting feels 'off' - they're doing that same style of performance. ScarlettJo was, of course, great; Hugh Jackman was even better; it was just Woody who seemed to be a little too old to be doing this kind of thing any more.