Scoop starts much like Woody Allen’s recent movies: a group of friends sit around a table, drinking and pondering a problem. In this case, it’s a dead reporter named Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), whose utter ruthlessness and colossal ego as a reporter now (post-mortem) appear both brilliant and lunatic. His colleagues toast his memory, amazed at his nerve but not exactly touched by his demise.
From here, the film takes the question of what happens after death a step beyond survivors’ chatter. It cuts to Joe afloat on Death’s boat (this would be this Bergman reference, as Death wears hooded cloak and carries a scythe). For a moment, it looks as if Scoop might be something relatively new for Woody Allen, considering a man’s anxiety about death without involving a nubile or dead young woman. But no. It is precisely that. For as Joe wanders over he deck, he meets a dead young woman whose story becomes the germ of his last scoop: she believes her former employer killed her and further, that he is the Tarot Card Killer who has been targeting young women in London.
Woody Allen, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Ian McShane
US theatrical: 28 Jul 2006 (Limited release)
Joe’s ruthlessness and ego kick in, and soon he’s found his way back to the world of the living, specifically, a theater stage. Here a magician, the Great Splendini (Allen), also known as Sid, is performing shtick (“You’re a credit to your race,” he tells his audience, “And I say that from the bottom of my heart”). Sid solicits a pretty girl to be “put her life on the line,” that is, step inside a dematerializing box and “disappear.” She happens to be an American journalism student, Sondra (Scarlett Johannson), already feeling uneasy because she’s just had mirthless, drunken sex with a self-loving film director. “I slept with him and I didn’t even get the interview,” she complains to her friend Vivian (Romola Garai). And this, you discover, is her primary concern, to get her story.
She gets her chance at a big one when she meets the slightly disoriented but still self-involved Joe, who appears to her inside Sid’s box. Joe pithily instructs her to pursue the killer and she agrees, based on her ambition to be a great reporter. Once Sid gets his own glimpse of the daunting specter Joe, he’s nervously ready to help, but only as a kind of distraction, a device by which Sondra might sound out her theories. When Sid begins to fret, the intrepid Sondra tries to soothe him: “Think about this as adding some excitement to your life,” she says, even as you know this is the last thing a Woody Allen character wants to do.
The ghost sets Sondra (and so, Sid) after the suspect, a British aristocrat named Peter (Hugh Jackman), whom she attracts by pretending to drown in a swimming pool. Looking near to death, it seems, makes her alluring, as Peter immediately invites her to his home for a hoity-toity lawn party. Again, Sondra proceeds without much thought: she’s posing as a rich girl from the States, with Sid as her father, and promptly falls in love with Peter. He apparently wins her over with such odious dialogue as “I just love an American accent” and “You have a very sensual quality,” suggesting that maybe her gauge of character is not as sharp as it might be.
Sondra’s affair with Peter inspires Sid’s jealousy, as a protective “paternal” figure, of course. When he warns her that she shouldn’t be pretending to be someone else—namely, “Jade Spence”—in order to solve the case and get her scoop, she observes dryly, “Your whole life is a deception. You’re a magician.”
This sounds like a theme. And if Scoop has one, submerged beneath its poor plotting, clumsy editing, and reductive characterizations, the emotional and moral costs of deception might be it. While Sondra maintains her cover even as, post-sex, she’s sneaking around Peter’s place to search for clues, she also begins to distrust herself. Maybe, because she’s lying, she can’t see truth anymore. Maybe Peter’s weird twitch when discussing his “unfaithful” mother doesn’t mean he’s the killer. And maybe the deck of tarot cards she discovers doesn’t mean what she thinks it means. “I don’t like this whole thing,” she moans. “I don’t like the whole process.”
That makes two of us. Initiated by Joe’s death and involving the deaths of young women off-screen, Scoop repeats the process by which Woody Allen’s movies duly make visible their interest in women as objects—desirable, dead, or both. The fact that Sondra is here the subject as well, pursuing the story about dead women, doesn’t so much change the terms as it reshuffles them. It certainly helps that she is Scarlett Johansson, who made even a Michael Bay movie bearable. But the point is the same: isn’t it funny how men manipulate women?
As the movie considers how deception drives Joe, Sid, and Sondra—not to mention the killer—it also ponders processes of reading as well as performing, as these allow self-deception. And this sounds like an insight.
Angry when Sondra resists his version of the truth, Sid points out, “Even a great reporter can be wrong.” The “reporter” here might embody transcendent art, impending death, or abject insensitivity. In any case, Sondra’s ambition looks bleak.
Scoop - Trailer