I've come full circle with Woody Allen, who I first discovered in high school as the beloved, literate jester of my parents' generation. I started watching his films in the mid-1980s when he was still churning out widely seen and appreciated movies like Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. In fact, one of my fondest memories of my initial wide-eyed excursions into art theaters is seeing Woody's Radio Days with my father at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
Then came the ugly Soon-yi saga, and Woody's filmmaking career spiraled into annual non-events like Celebrity,Hollywood Ending and Melinda and Melinda. Like others, I started wishing that he would stop making movies, or only make them every other year. But a funny thing happened on the way to my premature burial of the Woodman: I realized that the former Allen Konigsberg is a national treasure who, at age 70, is still making movies in a post-cinematic world. And that is something to celebrate--even if Scoop, his latest movie, is a dog, which it is.
Actually, this cinematic pooper-scooper has two things going for it: a covetous, tourist's eye view of London and the luscious Scarlett Johansson. Not coincidentally, these were crucial elements in Match Point, Woody's autumnal comeback effort from last year. What made Match Point work, however, was an unusually earnest script. Despite the story's clear debt to the work of Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train), Johansson's plight as a pregnant and penniless woman was as compelling as Jonathan Rhys Meyers' solution was horrifying.
But Scoop finds Woody in auto-pilot gag-writing mode again, with a silly prologue set in Hades. (It's small consolation that some of the old tricks still make me laugh, like the joke about Anthony Trollope.) The story starts like this: Johansson is Sondra Pransky, a naïve and ambitious American journalism student who, while spending a summer in London, stumbles onto a modern day Jack the Ripper case. She sleeps with the object of her investigation, a member of the gentry named Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman). As a none-too-helpful sidekick, Woody plays a hack magician named Sid "The Great Splendini" Waterman. Reluctantly, he consents to pose as Sondra's father as the two close in on the dastardly man who is killing all the short-haired brunette prostitutes of London.
If there's any reason for non-Woodites to see the film, it might be the pleasant sight of Johansson trying to expand her dramatic skill set to include the tics of wacky comediennes of yore, from Katharine Hepburn to Diane Keaton. The charismatic Johansson's technical limitations are evident in this film, but her effort is laudable, especially given that her A-list status could keep her from taking many similar risks for the foreseeable future.
In contrast to the compelling plight of Match Point's overmatched strivers, Scoop has little apparent reason to exist. While the new film once again provides glimpses of English gardens and gentlemen's clubs for us to feast our eyes on, Woody's detachment from the 21st century is more glaring. His London is a city without modern reference points--no mention of the royals, of Madonna, of Becks and Posh or more proletarian realities like Muslims, black people or the Underground. And unless I missed it, Woody's magician character somehow manages not to make a David Blaine joke.
But then, asking Woody to name-check a mere mortal like David Blaine would be like asking Ingmar Bergman to acknowledge ABBA.
Scoop is now playing in select theaters.
The Australian death comedy Look Both Ways is as appealing as it is toothless. Never has death seemed more unthreatening than in this ensemble comedy about a half-dozen Melbourne residents experiencing separate varieties of crisis.
The most sympathetic of approximately 10 key players in this ensemble drama is Meryl, a 30-something greeting card artist who witnesses a horrific death on a railroad track while returning from her father's funeral. Covering that same train accident are two journalists, Nick and Andy. Nick is a photographer, and he's just learned that he has a metastasizing cancer, while Andy, a pugnacious reporter and columnist, has discovered that his semi-girlfriend is pregnant. We also spend time with the traumatized driver of that train, the dead man's grieving partner and, in a tenuously related subplot, a newspaper editor who has decided to quit smoking.
Look Both Ways is a homier version of Lantana, a considerably darker Aussie film from 2001 that also employed a crosscutting narrative with a large cast. Lantana circled around a murder, while Look Both Ways is a homespun, tidily constructed narrative about ordinary middle-class people obsessing over existential issues, but it contains more banal bathos than fresh predicaments.
In this fundamentally lighthearted movie (its director has characterized it as a romantic comedy), the most affecting scenes of confronting mortality may be the several flashbacks one character has of his own father's humiliating decline, while the most original flourishes involve the use of animation, paintings, computer images, home movies and photographs to illustrate the interior lives of its characters. But in its convenient interlacing of characters and events, the dramatic writing is rudimentary.
Still, it's not hard to appreciate why the film was a hit in Australia, winning numerous awards there and abroad. The cast is appealing in its ordinariness, most especially Justine Clarke as the artist Meryl. Clarke, a performer in her mid-30s, is attractive in a quotidian way, and her character's quirks are entirely familiar and endearing. There is a level of trust and ease between her and the camera that seems attributable to the unusually high quotient of female talent working on this film. The director is Sarah Watt, a short-film veteran who is making her feature debut here, and the creative team is mostly made up of women. This seems to inform the film's portrait of Meryl, an independent yet vulnerable single career woman with a lively sense of humor. She isn't especially neat, she doesn't look her best all the time, and while she might like to have a mate, she isn't defined or limited by that desire.
There isn't a single surprise to be found in Look Both Ways, but the film benefits from its decent heart and empathetic performers. This isn't a Bergmanesque (or Boschian) vision of death. It's more like a comforting, long-running televison show in which we relate to the characters as reflections of ourselves. When we're sprawled out in front of the TV with a bowl of ice cream, we want the reassurance of everything turning out OK--an expectation that is never seriously threatened in this film. Look Both Ways may be a romantic comedy about death and dying, but it feels like Six Feet Under without the edginess, or Friends without the laugh track.
Look Both Ways opens Friday at the Carolina Theatre in Durham and the Galaxy Cinema in Cary.