Sunday, August 06, 2006
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
MATCHPOINT was a welcome and impressive return for Woody Allen as a director and a writer. Lush art direction and intuitive camera movement framed performances that brought Allen’s best script in over a decade to a dangerously high boil. It was sensual and provocative with deeply layered imagery. It earned four Golden Globe nominations, an original screenplay Oscar nomination and made this critic’s best film of 2006 short list. It now seems its success has spawned a somewhat awkward offshoot, a relationship between Allen and lead actress of both MATCHPOINT and Allen’s latest picture, SCOOP, Scarlett Johansson. According to the SCOOP press (or perhaps a spirit appeared to me and told me about this while I was being dematerialized, I can’t be sure), Johansson and Allen enjoyed their quick-witted off-screen banter so much that she felt it a shame that the two did not have any plans to work together on camera. I suppose its possible he too felt this was a sad situation, or I suppose its also possible he saw this as a great way to spend more intimate time with his new muse, but anyway you look at it, Allen decided to write a script that would feature the two as the film’s leads. And so SCOOP was born, the story of an American journalism student in London who is on the verge of uncovering the identity of the infamous tarot card serial killer and thus breaking a ginormous story that will give her budding career an enormous head start. Great for her but SCOOP negates in an hour a half all the momentum Allen regained in the first two brilliant minutes of MATCHPOINT. I laughed my way through SCOOP but most of the time I was laughing at the entirely ludicrous root of the story and Allen’s obvious concessions in his script that were necessary to make it still questionably plausible.
Is this exchange between Allen and Johansson really worth all this trouble? Admittedly, they play well off of each other, both in their limited capacities. Hers, despite exhibiting a drastically wide range of emotions in MATCHPOINT, is her sometimes-hollow comedic delivery and his is that distant, glassy look that comes naturally with age but here makes him look like he’s drifting in and out of his senses. They meet when he calls her on stage. He is a magician; she is his unsuspecting audience member who must step into a box. Then, because it was in Allen’s box that she first encounters a spirit that gives her the scoop while she is being dematerialized (now that earlier comment makes sense to you, it?), she insists on solving this mystery with Allen’s help. They quickly become inseparable despite having any good reason to be in this caper together. He is constantly tripping over the lies the pair tells to get close to their suspect, often nearly ruining all their work. Meanwhile, he has no real stake to gain by helping her at all. A typical scene will have the two snapping back and forth, reaching points where they both alternately ask why they bother with the other, followed by the two inexplicably reconciling and eating dinner together.
Allen has been directing films since the 1960’s. He should have been able to spot some fairly simple story adjustments that would have better justified the pairing of the two. Instead of perhaps lying to people about Allen being her father, maybe he could have just been written as her father. No way Daddy will walk away and let his daughter investigate a serial killer no matter how much she yells. Instead, Allen plays a relative stranger, leaving the only reason for them to spend time together being that they share some solid chemistry and the same sense of humour. Oh, that was the reason for writing this to begin with. And that glassy look that Allen sports onscreen also found its way off-screen. SCOOP’s aesthetic elements are strained and clumsy. The set designed for the boat to Hades scenes (yes, you read correctly), looks cheap and static. It doesn’t even appear as if the boat were moving amidst the abundant smoke from the machine off camera. The framing and camera work are also uncomfortable and sometimes amateurish. As I found it difficult to focus on anything other than the strange movement, I just became sad realizing the depth and purpose in MATCHPOINT’s aesthetics may have been fleeting. Thank God Hugh Jackman is on hand as the suspected serial killer to distract with his effortless talent and impeccably smooth good looks.
It isn’t entirely fair to repeatedly compare SCOOP to its predecessor, MATCHPOINT, but I cannot comprehend how the same person directed the two. MATCHPOINT has so much cunning and energy whereas SCOOP suffers from Allen’s longtime philosophy that there is no reason why he cannot unleash one movie every year. Here's the reason, Woody. The result is a rushed work full of holes that expose it as a weak excuse to indulge two actors’ egos. Chemistry alone does not a good movie make, especially when the chemistry in question is far from perfect. Um, see MATCHPOINT instead.