It's hard to watch a celebrated filmmaker slowly crumble, but Woody Allen's slide into mediocrity has been going on for so long now it's a wonder he still finds financing. Over the last 16 years the director has made 19 films and, arguably, only four or five are worth the celluloid they're printed on. Most have been slapdash flights of whimsy, barely amusing murder mysteries or tiresome misanthropic tirades. It's pretty clear the director has nothing left to say. Even last year's overpraised drama Match Point was a sleek regurgitation of themes he explored in Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Equally disheartening is his unique ability to squander the formidable talents of well-known actors and cinematographers for throwaway crap like Scoop. It's only a matter of time before British investors (his new cinematic sugar daddies) figure out what American producers took 20 years to learn: Woody's films don't make money anymore. Which prompts the question, why does he keep making them? Allen's character in Scoop, Sid Waterman, probably offers up the best answer when he explains: "I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but when I grew up I converted to narcissism."

Enamored with Match Point star Scarlett Johansson, Allen has built this rickety screwball-thriller as a vehicle for her, casting her as a plucky student reporter who stumbles into a sensational murder mystery. Set in London, the film starts promisingly enough: British journalist Joe Strombel (Deadwood's incredible Ian McShane) has just died. In the afterlife, he learns the identity of the infamous Tarot Card Serial Killer, and being a die-hard journo, he becomes determined to get the story out. There's only one problem: He's dead.

Sondra Pransky (Johansson) is a nerdy, naive journalism student visiting friends in London, and winds up as an audience volunteer in Sid Waterman's low-rent magic show. Locked in a vanishing box, she's visited by the ghost of Strombel, who gives her the scoop of a lifetime. Teaming up with Waterman, she struggles to solve the case even as she falls in love with its prime suspect (Hugh Jackman).

In more nimble hands, this would be an amusing, if forgettable, 90 minutes at the movies. However, Allen has become so sloppy in his filmmaking that Scoop plays like a clichéd retread of three or four earlier pictures — and inferior ones at that. You know you're on shaky ground when your film pales in comparison to Manhattan Murder Mystery.

Though there are occasionally funny lines, the dialogue is mostly leaden, the narrative is predictably linear and Allen shamelessly cribs plot devices from his own work. Even Match Point's esteemed cinematographer Remi Adefarasin fails to overcome Woody's lazy direction. The whole package feels unfocused and slapped together, and even the cast fails to rise to the occasion. Johansson is inconsistent and, for probably the first time, uninteresting. Jackman gives it the old college try but seems uncomfortable, and McShane is pretty much wasted. Which leaves us with Allen, and it's amazing he gets as many chuckles as he does, given how predictable his shtick has become.

At 71, one has to wonder what the hell Woody Allen is trying to accomplish as a filmmaker. His crude examinations of class conflict and bourgeoisie angst have turned into self-absorption and a fetish for upper-class living. Whatever you think of his worldview, there was an irreverent wit, rhythm and energy to his early work. With each new disappointing effort his reputation grows more tarnished and the hope that Woody has returned to form becomes desperate wishful thinking.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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