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(2006) ** 1/2 Pg-13
96 min. Focus Features. Cast: Denholm Elliott, Nicola Pagett, Michael Maloney.

Woody Allen's Scoop is in line with Allen's work of the last decade: mildly pleasurable and disappointingly shy of the writer-director's great films of the past. Fans, then, will find the film bittersweet and thoroughly familiar, but perhaps neophytes will respond to the writer-director-star's creativity and offbeat, nattering rhythms, which—musty though they may be—beats most of what passes for Hollywood comedy these days and reliably gives actors the kind of opportunities they won't get elsewhere.

Like Allen's well-received Match Point, Scoop was shot in London with Scarlett Johansson. Johansson plays Sondra Pransky, a college journalist who stumbles on a red-hot scoop. According to the roguish ghost of a legendary journalist (Ian McShane of Deadwood), English aristocrat Peter Lyman is, in fact, the Tarot Card Killer. Allen plays "Splendini," a.k.a. Sid Waterman, the schlubby magician who's unexpectedly swept into Sondra's naïve investigation (Splendini's unctuous patter is a comic highlight). Matters become even more complicated when Sondra falls for Lyman (Hugh Jackman).

The mystery is no great shakes, and the jokes rarely sparkle, but it's all in the delivery. Anyone familiar with the Allen oeuvre will nod in recognition at the filmmaker's obsessive components: a classical-jazz-hybrid score, references to classic movies (Johansson opines, "If I'd used my feminine wiles like Katherine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell..."), and slightly-used imagery ("Oriental" exoticism, a cameo by the Grim Reaper on a Styx-crossing ferry). Even in his lesser work, Allen can be relied upon for a handful of left-field punchlines. "I was born into the Hebrew persuasion," Sid says, "but when I got older, I converted to narcissism."

Allen gets laughs from unlikely sources: fundamental wordplay (funny cause of death? "coronary thrombosis"), non sequiturs (the aspiring journalist's real calling may be dental hygiene), gymnastic argumentation, and the sweet anti-romance of verbal diarrhea (at times, too much information from Miss Pransky). Allen knows he's not reinventing the wheel or curing cancer, but he includes the pointed line "If more people in the world had a sense of humor, we wouldn't be in the state we're in today"; perhaps he means "state" to be taken literally. At any rate, Allen's old-fashioned films are now like a ratty pair of slippers that are too comfortable even to consider throwing away.

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