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A relentless journalist will stop at nothing to get a good story, and even a little setback like death won't stand in his way. In Scoop, Woody Allen's second London outing with Scarlett Johansson following Match Point, he pokes fun at obsessive reporters and the tea-and-crumpets culture that is still brand new to him. Hard-core fans of the 71-year-old auteur will recognize Scoop as his best comedy in years, while detractors will complain that it's just more of the same. In a sense, both sides are right.
Joe Strombel ("Deadwood's" Ian McShane), a recently deceased journalist, travels on a crowded boat to the afterlife with the Grim Reaper as his guide. When he receives a tip from beyond that British aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) may be the Tarot Card Killer, he crashes a magic show in spirit-form, and shares the scoop with budding college journalist Sondra (Scarlett Johansson). She turns to "Splendidi" (Woody Allen), head magician/native New Yorker for help, and since he has nothing better to do, they set out together to stalk Peter and try to make headlines. Trouble brews when she starts to date the object of her investigation and gets clouded with emotions, suggesting that maybe a new career path is calling her name.
Scoop is a throwback to the classic screwball comedies of the 1940s dealing with budding romances, false identities, and common pursuits of the ugly truth. Allen's films may be hit-or-miss, but he appears to have grown up a bit as a filmmaker in recent years. For starters, he finally realizes that nobody wants to see an elderly man prowling the high school hallways for fresh bait, so he has passed the romantic baton to younger, more distinguished types. Jackman slides effortlessly into the role of a debonair aristocrat who may or may not be a serial killer, and Allen takes the more appropriate role of a grandfather-figure to Johansson. Everything is in its right place.
Ultimately, Scoop far surpasses his modern comic offerings (Hollywood Ending, anyone?), but is still light-years away from the brilliance of Annie Hall. He used to be able to mesh drama with comedy; lately he seems to choose one or the other, limiting the final product. Even with its issues-regurgitated jokes, a criminally under-used Ian McShane-Scoop celebrates its creative premise. Johansson, in a different type of part than she's ever played, channels Election's Tracy Flick to portray an endearingly nebbish, yet ruthless geek. Her scenes with Allen are blissfully silly, with gems such as, "if we put our heads together, you'll hear a hollow noise." Scoop may be a mixed bag, but unlike his recent comedies, it's worth trying on for size.