scoopRead all about it: Scarlett and Woody try again – and fail miserably – in Scoop (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Readers with long memories, memories long enough to recall my excoriations of Match Point (six months ago) or Melinda and Melinda (getting on to be a year and a half), may well wonder why I bothered to endure Scoop, let alone take the trouble to pen a diatribe in its dishonor. The truth may be that I need the eggs.

Or it could be that, even though I pronounced Mr. Allen utterly depleted as an artist after his last effort, as inept a horror as I have ever witnessed at the cinema, some unexpected cause for hope intervened. There are a few Allens in recent years that I’ve avoided seeing, films I fear would be so bad as to tarnish further the auteur’s thoroughly blackened halo. Although I don’t see how an Allen film could be more stomach-churningly vile than either Sweet and Lowdown or Deconstructing Harry, I have nonetheless kept a wide berth around Celebrity, Hollywood Ending, and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Until perhaps three months ago, Anything Else belonged to that group. I had no reason to believe that this 2003 film, a financial and critical fiasco, would be anything other than trash. So you can imagine my surprise when, finally looking at the DVD on a spring afternoon, the unassuming Anything Else turned out to be one of the most ambitious and rewarding films that Allen has made. I watched Anything Else again and again, over the spring and into the summer, before yielding the DVD back to its rightful owner, the public library. The movie has one terrible scene in the first half-hour, and then slowly the film rebounds, until I could scarcely believe how good it was – and is. I know it may not say much to call it his finest work since Husbands and Wives, but Anything Else in its flawed glory resembles a pessimistic remake of Hannah and Her Sisters, one without siblings, without miracles, but with an acute sense of underlying violence. It is Woody’s 9/11 movie, albeit with no references to the events of that day. After the visual indifference of his films from the mid to late 90s, Anything Else consciously calls attention to the grandeur of New York, its rivers, its bridges, and certainly Central Park, lit with a summertime glow by the cinematographer Darius Khondji.

Because of this, I was willing to take a chance on Scoop, knowing full well it was a light comedy starring the untalented Sorority Susie herself, that goddamned Scarlett Johansson.

Ms. Johansson has turned in a capable performance exactly once, that I know of: she was just right, playing a mostly silent role, in the underrated, quite wonderful Girl with a Pearl Earring. Here she returns to business as usual, the business being ineptitude wholesale. Everything about her dismays me: her untrained voice; her amateurish delivery; her facial expressions, which run the gamut from smug to vacuous. As in Match Point, Ms. Johansson continues to deploy her vocal cords with all the melismatic élan of a cut-rate Kristy McNichol. In Scoop, she has a hideous wardrobe that handicaps her further, one that defies all previously known standards of dreadfulness. I realize that Ms. Johansson is supposed to be playing a college student, evidently an impoverished undergraduate with no taste. What else could account for such shriekingly drab accoutrements as a brown linen knee-length skirt that appears to be a sawed-off burlap sack, or a sleeveless flowered frock that sets a camellia pattern against a seasick pea-green? But never mind that: Scoop would still be a laugh-less, lifeless fizzle even if its pallid leading lady were more attractively attired.

What shall I criticize next? How about Remi Adefarasin’s atrocious cinematography? The two films that Allen has shot in Britain are the cheapest-looking pieces of junk in his entire oeuvre. There was more visual care lavished on such primitive works as Bananas and Take the Money and Run than this. Adefarasin’s camera (he lensed Match Point, too) looks slightly out of focus, especially in wide-angle shots, as when the director, playing a magician, presents some decidedly unmagical tricks on-stage before an appreciatively cooing audience of the susceptible, and the images have no sharpness to them at all. The country estate sequences were photographed on overcast days, so that we lose the full opulence of the English gardens. Not that a sunny sky would necessarily have helped the incompetent Adefarasin: he can’t frame compositions worth a damn either. The extreme close-ups of Ian McShane and Fenella Woolgar, in an early scene aboard a fog-shrouded death ship steered by the Grim Reaper, seem calculated to destroy the actors’ performances; a pity, because both of them are rather good, in the limited time we are granted their company.

Then there are the matters of Woody Allen’s writing and his taste in music, each of which is in precipitous decline. Allen has now made his third consecutive film wherein his musical choices, once delectable, range from trite to plain bad. In Scoop, he bombards us with lobotomy-inducing encores of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” one of the most egregious pieces of orchestral pomp ever over-exposed. Warhorses ride in Allen’s dialogue as well: “I was born into the Hebrew persuasion,” he tells posh party guests in between showing off his card tricks, “but I converted to narcissism.” By way of explaining why she doesn’t wear contact lenses, Johansson titters, “I don’t like to put my finger on my eyeball.” (Even an actress who actually has a flair for comedy would have a tough go with that one.) “I should be flossing molars for a living!” Johansson proclaims in a later scene, and I wholeheartedly agree: Yes, she should.

Why are we watching Scarlett Jo-horror anyway instead of the infinitely more prepossessing Romola Garai, who has a few throwaway bits here in the miniscule “best friend” role? Garai not only looks better than Johansson, she sounds better. She speaks clearly and gracefully in a lilting, playful British accent; while her every move flows effortlessly, her more famous co-star has the gait of a stalled ox. Another fine young actor in need of more time on-screen, John Light (he played the photographer’s assistant on a Vanity Fair assignment in Chris Terrio’s Heights) materializes in a poker game opposite Woody and Hugh Jackman; Light speaks his two lines authoritatively, then is neither seen nor heard again. O blessed be the day when I can say the same for Hush, Hush, Sweet Scarlett! – NPT

July 28, 2006