Cinema Signal:

Americans in London

. "Scoop"

This is both a joy and a disappointment in the grand opus of Woody Allen, particularly with respect to its forerunner, the highly successful departure from the auteur's norm, "Match Point." Disappointment because it doesn't follow that terrific mystery thriller in style nor discipline; joy because in its reversion to standard Allen fare, it features and expands upon the naturalistic talents of one Scarlett Johansson.

In his comments off screen, Allen extols the virtues of his latest screen partner. What I personally like so much about her is the modest workmanlike approach, the honesty, the reaching into new requirements with almost every picture she does, nailing it, moving on, and without pretensions. She's aware of what she's got, makes no fuss over it, and uses it in the best interests of whatever she's in. So, Woody, move over. She's not just your heroine.

What Allen apparently saw in her during their last film was that down to earth, effortless ability to engage, to explore, and to deliver. He mines her talent here for all the comedic timing she possesses, which is both considerable and striking. If she were at the beginning of her career, you might say this performance will open new doors but, as surprising as she is, her malleability is already well established. The only thing she hasn't done is play opposite the traditional Woody Allen personna. Until now.

They're a pair all right. She's Sondra Pransky, a student who once wanted to be a dental assistant and now wants nothing more than to become a journalist. He's Sid Waterman, aka Splendini, about as poor a magician who ever was allowed on a stage. Both are Americans in London, she staying with a friend, he plying his act, the grand finale of which consists of taking a member of the audience, playing that person with repartee that's as withered with age as he is, and putting them in a wardrobe-sized box ostensibly to rearrange their molecules. To prove the success of it, he opens the door and the person has disappeared.

Now, in a simultaneous time zone but in another spatial reality, we watch as dearly departed newsman, the famous Joe Strombel (Ian McShane, "Deadwood"), is being transported on a ship piloted by the hooded figure of death. When Strombel hears from another passenger headed for ethereal pastures that she was poisoned to death by her boss, the very wealthy British aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), and that he's the infamous "Tarot Card Killer" who's been terrorizing the city with a string of murders, Strombel nose for news makes him want to run.

Death apparently doesn't incapacitate the spirit from its worldly nature, which means that Joe must rechannel himself to his home town and find someone to investigate Lyman, prove his guilt, and scoop the world of journalism. One last proof that he was the best. And what better receptacle for the collaboration but our ambitious (and Allen-naive) lass, Sondra? When it's she whose molecules are being rearranged, Joe appears inside the box. And when Splendini opens the door, everyone's duly awe-struck by the excellence of the trick.

But, now that Sid has seen the spirit, he's the natural person to help the poor girl achieve her goal. Together they become the P.I. team from hell. She adopts a new identity in keeping with the elite world they must enter, Jade Spence, and they find their quarry, rich-boy, above-reproach Lyman, swimming (quite capably) in a posh members-only club's swimming pool. One thing leads to another--which is mainly him getting an eyeful of Scarlett alias Sondra alias Jade in a fetching swimsuit, and a multi-purposed romance is on.

The case, on the other hand, is entirely in the style of the Allen schtick, replete with jokes that work, or don't, and ideas that in their semi-senseless way keep things moving. Johansson is so game. She appears to be having a splendidly good time channeling the Allen aesthetic and arranging all her creative molecules into the comedic atmosphere.

Allen, part of whose modus operandi (once he broke off from Mia Farrow), has been to work with fascinating talents, particularly of the female gender (remember Mariel Hemingway of "Manhattan," Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman (and Sean Penn) of "Sweet and Lowdown," Elizabeth Shue in "Deconstructing Harry," Elizabeth Berkley of "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," and Radha Mitchell of "Melinda and Melinda?"

If a typical Allen film doesn't lure you, Johansson watchers simply can't miss this incarnation. If you've been thinking of her as the erotic vixen of "Match Point," the fascinating beauty of "The Girl With a Pearl Earring," or the ignored wifey ingenue of "Lost in Translation," you'll find an entirely new dimension to enrich the image. Well worth the price of admission, and there's the splendidly classy Hugh Jackman and a few Allen laughs along the way.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
                                       Jules Brenner  

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