If last year's "Match Point" was Step 1 of the Woody Allen Revitalization Project, "Scoop" is a confident Step 2. Maybe it's the shift in focus from New York to London; maybe it's his discovery of Scarlett Johansson as his new Muse. Whatever the cause, these two movies complement one another and bring Allen back to the forefront of great American filmmakers.
"Scoop" actually works as the comedic version of the dramatic "Match Point," as both deal with murder and intrigue within England's upper class. In the new film, an American journalism student named Sondra Pransky (Johansson), vacationing in London, is visited by the ghost of recently departed journalist Joe Strombel (Ian McShane). The inveterate newshound, unable to stop working even when he's dead, has learned something while crossing the river Styx: London's notorious Tarot Card Killer would seem to be none other than Peter Lyman, son of respected businessman Lord Lyman!
Sondra is naive and inexperienced, but the perky gal is eager to prove herself in the journalism world. She sets out to investigate Peter Lyman, to see if she can come up with enough to go to the police with. (Just telling them she had a tip from a dead man probably wouldn't get her very far.) Assisting her against his will is Sid Waterman (Woody Allen), aka The Great Splendini, a vaudeville-ish stage magician in whose disappearing box Sondra was standing, as an audience volunteer, when Strombol appeared to her. Sid saw him too, hence his involvement. A dead guy appears as part of your stage act, you're kind of obligated to follow his instructions.
Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), it turns out, is suave and charismatic and soon smitten with Sondra, who pretends to drown at his club's pool as a way of meeting him. She tells him her name is Jade Spence and that Sid is her father, an oil tycoon. They are invited to a garden party. A relationship between "Jade" and Peter develops -- all so she can look for clues. What if it turns out he's the serial killer and Sondra has already fallen in love with him?
Johansson turns out to be a good sparring partner for Allen, and the old guy hasn't been this energized and funny in at least a decade. Sid's anxieties and nervousness are familiar territory, of course, but as Allen does card tricks for snooty dowagers and patters endlessly and insincerely about what a great crowd everyone is, he comes across as playful and mischievous, even youthful -- no small feat for a guy who's 70 years old.
A significant factor in the humor is that in most of Allen's movies, he fits in. He's a New Yorker to the core, and his films are usually set in New York. In London, he sticks out like a sore thumb, for his honking accent as well as for his Jewishness. When he enters a fancy club -- one that probably didn't even allow Jews until recently -- as a guest, cracking jokes and making himself at home, he's referencing his differences simply by not referencing them. Just seeing him there is enough to be funny.
The film moves swiftly and blithely, with giddy one-liners and dialogue that ranges from snarky (Sid says an audience volunteer "looked like Sitting Bull") to sublime ("I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but when I got older I converted to narcissism"). Is it a classic? Nah. It's light as air. But it's a zippy good time for 90 minutes or so.