It's as true as ever that Woody Allen's movies are a specialized taste, though in the case of modern mainstream comedies like Small Time Crooks and Hollywood Ending, it'd help immensely if he stopped casting himself in them. His latest comic thriller, Scoop, just wouldn't be the same with anyone else playing his role, but in virtually all particulars, that would be a good thing. As it is, the film perpetually teeters on the edge between a functional vehicle and a train wreck, and whenever Allen opens his mouth, he pushes it violently in the latter direction.
Allen's lighter follow-up to 2005's Match Point again takes place in London and again stars Scarlett Johansson, this time as an American journalism student visiting friends abroad. Hauled onstage as a volunteer for Allen's shaky, awkward stage-magician act, she encounters the ghost of Ian McShane, a professional newsman who wants her to break his final news story, revealing suave aristocrat Hugh Jackman as a notorious prostitute-strangling serial killer. To nail down the story, Johansson assumes a false identity and worms her way into Jackman's life, towing Allen along and presenting him as her father. Allen fumbles at every turn, improvising lengthy, hideously embarrassing stories about her childhood and nearly blowing her cover time and again, but she keeps bringing him along, possibly because he's the only one who believes her, and possibly because the thin story would wrap up in 20 minutes without his windy vamping.
Some of Scoop's fish-out-of-water awkwardness does work, simply because the British characters are far too polite and polished to comment on Allen's stumbling speeches, weird behavior, and grotesque "revelations" about Johansson. They even seem to find him refreshing. His performance is embarrassing and painful, but the gimmick is that it's meant to be, for everyone around him, and for Johansson in particular. Still, it doesn't fit with the rest of the movie; while everyone else speaks and acts more or less conventionally, Allen desperately throws himself into his usual shtick and worries intensely at each corny joke, speaking in a rush as if he's trying to get his punchlines out before he forgets them, but drawing out every line with twice the verbiage it needs. There's a taut thriller somewhere inside Scoop, and it tries gamely to get out whenever Johansson and Jackman end up alone onscreen with their generic, serviceable roles. But Allen keeps elbowing it aside in order to get a few more gags in edgewise, and in the process, he's as discomfiting a writer-director as he is an ersatz dad.