Watched Woody Allen's Scoop over the weekend.
Mannion last week, with emphasis added today:
In the end, I think [Edward] Burns will be content to be judged on the body of his work rather than on the excellence of individual movies and he appears confident that the judgment will tell in his favor. Woody Allen is doing the same thing, by the way, and criticisms of his movies should take this into account, looking at each one not in comparison to his past masterpieces but as pieces in the larger puzzle he's been assembling around those great movies.
Mannion today: Forget that!
Oh, I could do it, I suppose. I could try to make the case that Scoop is to Match Point as Northrop Frye said A Midsummer Night's Dream is to Romeo and Juliet, the comedy that is the tragedy in a mirror, and then connect them both to Crimes and Misdemeanors.
And I could point out that the gathering of the journalists to toast the memory of Ian MacShane's character is a deliberate reminder of the gathering of old comics in Broadway Danny Rose and in that way Scoop reaches back to Annie Hall and the scene of Alvy Singer's early days as a comedy writer.
Allen's character, the third rate magician, Sid Waterman, aka the Great Splendini, is just the kind of act Danny Rose would have represented and counted as one of his most successful clients.
And Allen and Scarlett Johansson bumbling through a murder investigation together is reminiscent of Allen and Diane Keaton bumbling through a murder investigation in Manhattan Murder Mystery, in which Keaton and Allen were allowed to have the marriage their characters couldn't bring off in Manhattan.
And the appearance of ghosts harks back to Alice, and there are replays of jokes from Sleeper, and the figure of Death is straight out of Love and Death, although wearing a different sheet, and Death in Love and Death is an homage to Bergman whose influence on Allen travels through Interiors and on into all his "serious" movies leading us back to Match Point which leads us back to Scoop.
I could do it, fit the piece into the puzzle, but is it worth the time and effort, that's what I have to ask myself.
Going by the time and effort Allen himself seems to have devoted to Scoop, I'd have to say no.
The script is slight but amusing enough. But Allen doesn't seem to have put any thought into the cinematography, the staging, or the directing. It's almost as if let an assistant film some middle inning rehearsals. There's a too casual, let's just try it out and see if we can make it work feel to everything. The whole cast seems unsure of their lines. Nobody moves through their scenes with any energy. It's not just as if they're saving it up; it's as if they're still trying to figure it out, still looking for their marks on the floor and hesitant about whether to cross on this word or that or sit before delivering a line or just after.
Ian McShane, in particular, seems lost. Besides being underused, he looks slightly befuddled whenever he appears, as if he'd just been handed his script, in fact, and he's still working his way through it trying to discover just what sort of character he's been hired to play. I swear there were moments when I caught him looking pleadingly at the camera as if to ask Allen, Just what the hell is it you want me doing here?
Scarlett Johansson knows what she wants her character to be, a shy, awkward nerd, a former ugly duckling who to her own bemusement has recently blossomed into a beautiful young woman who happens to look a lot like Scarlett Johanson.
She plays Sondra Pransky---Allen's funniest and sexiest name for a female character since Allison Porchnik---as alternately forgetful of her sex appeal and carried away by it, to her own disadvantage either way, so that she's either coming on too strong or backpedaling away too fast, and not watching where she's going in either direction so that she's constantly in danger of colliding with the furniture or the other characters. In her own head, Sondra's still a skinny teenager and, unused to having all these voluptuous curves, sje treats her own body as not-at-all-convincing disguise. When at one point she squares her shoulders to lift her deep cleavage up into Hugh Jackson's notice, she appears to be thinking, No way am I going to fool this guy with these ridiculously and obviously fake boobs. And she has Sondra walk as if she's wearing somebody else's body. She sticks out her behind and toddles forward in a hurry, leading with her chin and picking up speed like a baby running down a hill, as if she can't find her own center of gravity.
But, again, it's as if we're watching rehearsals. Johansson comes across as being about two weeks away from perfecting the character. She hasn't had time to internalize all the physical comedy. None of it's reflexive yet. She lets us catch her acting. She's thinking her way through the part and you can practically hear the wheels turning on every stumble, every cute nervous twitch, every finger-stab at the glasses sliding down her nose.
Hugh Jackman, though, is the real disappointment. Johansson has the right handle on her character. Jackman has completely missed the boat on his. Jackman, so solid, so angry, so furious, and so hyper-masculine as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, plays Peter Lyman, the aristocrat Johansson and McShane suspect of being a serial killer, as a gelded flyweight. He's so insubstantial that he'd be rejected by Bertie Wooster's Drones Club on the grounds that he wouldn't have the strength let alone the nerve to steal a policeman's helmet on Boat Night.
He's meant to be a charmer, but such charm as he exhibits is that of a high school freshman who is so intimidated by the girl he wants to ask out that when he's invited over to her house he spends all his time in the kitchen with her mother and aunts charming them with a demonstration of his manners and good intentions.
In other words, he's got no sex appeal, and the only reason he and Johansson's character wind up in bed together is that they've both read the same script and know they're supposed to.
The only mystery in the mystery plot of Scoop comes from the question Did he or didn't he? Jackman has decided to make us wonder by playing Lyman as too nice, too gentle, too good to be true. He's trying to force us to ask ourselves, He can't be as perfect as he appears to be, can he?
The only question I had, however, was, Who cares?
I was thinking the whole way, if Lyman turns out to have done it, then all the nice guyness is too obvious a trick, and if he turns out to be innocent, then that's all he is, an innocent, not at all worth Johansson's time or affection.
The obvious cinematic role model for Jackman here should have been Cary Grant in Suspicion. Grant made his suspected murderer suspicious by allowing him a streak of malice that he tried too hard to smooth over. He played Johnnie Aysgarth as if he was a guy who knew he looked and sounded like Cary Grant and had learned to travel on the resemblance.
There's a real Jekyll and Hyde quality to his performance with both sides of his character often appearing at the same time. We see Cary Grant and we see the dangerous cad pretending to be Cary Grant, but there's the suggestion that there's a third side to his character that's being withheld---or that's controlling both the other sides from the wings---and we don't know which side to put our faith in, which is why it's so believeable that Joan Fontaine can't make up her mind about him. He has her coming and going, and it's no wonder she gets to the point where she seems to be appealing to the Cary Grant/Jekyll side of him to rescue her from his Mr Hyde.
For a few minutes after he appears, it appears this is the direction Jackman will be going with Lyman. But then nothing like malice or even anger develops in him. If there is any Cary Grant in him, it's Grant in Bringing Up Baby, baffled and terrified by Katherine Hepburn's apparent insanity and by her playful but intense sexuality.
Of course, what Grant is constantly backing away from in Bringing Up Baby, besides the very real possibility that Hepburn will cause him actual bodily harm, is his own sexual attraction to her. He's a good boy with a fiancee and a career and a reputation as a scientist to protect, and he knows that giving in to his feelings for her is not what a good boy, or a smart boy, would do.
There are times in Scoop when it's Johansson who is the threat to Jackman, but those moments don't last and they don't go anywhere. Most of the rest of their time together, it's the case of Johansson alternately throwing herself into his arms and then pulling away and Jackman accepting it either way because it would be impolite for him to do otherwise.
Still, and again, this isn't so much a bad performance on Jackman's part as it is an unfinished one. If during the course of six weeks of rehearsal for a play with the same story and cast of characters Jackman was trying out this interpretation of Lyman, I'd think, Ok, that's one way to go about it.
Of course, actors in movies rarely have two weeks of rehearsal time, let alone six. That's why they are so dependent on their directors. And not just on the set. Directors continue to shape performances after the wrap in the editing room. Allen, the director, who, however he rates as a filmmaker, has always had a reputation as a meticulous craftsman, appears to have gone AWOL on Scoop, both on the set and in the editing room. It's as if he was content to let point the camera and let it roll and whatever happened happened and then left the editing to an assistant with the only instructions being that the scenes had to make narrative sense.
And when you watch him stumbling and mumbling through the part of Splendini, continually seeming on the verge of calling for a prompt on lines that he wrote, you begin to suspect how the meticulous craftsman came to be responsible for such slipshod work.
My God, you think, he's old!
Well, he is 71. But some people wind down as they get on in years, and some people grow old overnight as if they've walked through a door into another room. Allen appears to have walked through a door.
I'm not suggesting Allen has lost it. It may be that he's not up to his a movie every six months pace and needs to cut back. It may be that he doesn't have the energy to divide anymore between directing and acting. There's a suggestion in the movie that Scoop is Allen's goodbye to acting in his own movies.
Or it may be that Scoop was just a good idea Allen lost interest in just as he was going in to production. Maybe his mind was already on his next project.
We'll see what the next movie's like, and I can't wait for it. Cassandra's Dream, starring Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor, is due out this summer.
Scoop. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen, Hugh Jackman, and Ian McShane. 2006.
An almost complete list of Allen's movies available on DVD is here.
Scott Lemeiux on Match Point here.
The comparisons to Cary Grant might have been unfair to Jackman. I had Grant too much on the brain when we watched Scoop because I had just read this article, Becoming Cary Grant, in the Atlantic. Once again, it's subscribers only, so drop me a line if you're not a subscriber and would like me to email you the article.
Cross-posted at newcritics.