On the spectrum of movie machismo, on one side you have Clint Eastwood with his never-give-an-inch stare and terse challenges. On the other side is Woody Allen, a man who does all the things male movie stars are not supposed to: twitch, worry, stutter and fret over his performance in bed.
Allen's film career has simultaneously denied his sexual appeal in that navel-gazing litany of neurosis, and also celebrated his prowess with a bevy of tasty onscreen pairings, from Manhattan's nubile Mariel Hemingway to Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite.
Contradiction thus defines Allen's onscreen persona, and his film career, too, is made up of as many junkers as works of timeless appeal.
His latest, Scoop, which unfortunately skews closer to the junker end, comes on the heels of Match Point, a film that suggested Allen might be capable of churning out something of tension and quality amid the increasingly McAllen output of middling comedies like Celebrity and Hollywood Ending.
But especially arriving so soon after Match Point, Scoop feels like a trifle, a meal of leftovers reconstituted from an enjoyable feast into a less-than-savory, second-rate dish burdened by the usual shtick.
The parallels between the films are legion, with Scarlett Johansson again playing a promiscuous American living in London who attracts the eye of a possibly murderous and well-connected man in a Match Point remade as a slapstick murder mystery.
In the film's fantastical setup, a recently deceased crack British reporter, Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), gets a "scoop" that a prominent British lord's son may be the Tarot Card serial killer just as death's barge carries him away to eternity.
Joe manages to escape the Grim Reaper and pass his scoop on to a woman giving off "journalistic" vibrations, Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), who is in fact a fledgling college newspaper reporter vacationing in London.
Dead Joe is able to communicate with Sondra while she is being "dematerialized" by the cornball magician Sid Waterman (Allen), an old-school, vaudeville-brand kook in a red velvet blazer with a smarmy stage manner filled with effusive banter and cornball tricks. Sondra enlists Sid to help her confirm Joe's inside information that wealthy, handsome, well-connected Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the Tarot Card killer. Like Nancy Drew with access to contraceptives, she sets off the "get close" to Peter -- real close.
Casting himself as a crass Brooklynite sniffing out murder amid the aristocracy gives the director ample opportunity to épater le bourgeois, making much within England's posh sporting clubs and country mansions of his own Jewishness and lowbrow manners. Scoop allows Allen to roll around in the obviously relished role of an American "short-fingered vulgarian," as the wags at the defunct Spy magazine would say. Like Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers or Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents, Scoop is partly a comedy founded on a bumbling interloper making a fool of himself with his "betters."
But while Match Point was a film defined by consistency of tone that allowed Allen to ratchet up the tension, Scoop is another of the director's oddball, hysterical composites of drama and comedy. Allen spends a great deal of time moving between the not especially engrossing murder-mystery plot line and his trademark yuks. Though some of the jokes in Scoop hit the mark, others feel dragged out of mothballs and play into the all-too-predictable rhythms of Allen's fascinations and humor that begin to make even serial-killing Brits seem preferable to another visitation from Allen's increasingly shopworn comic repertoire.