Woody Allen returns to his comic comfort zone with Scoop, about a young journalist named Sondra investigating Peter Lyman whom she suspects is the Tarot Card Killer.
Sondra (Scarlett Johansson) isn’t clued into the murders until she’s brought up onstage during Sid Waterman’s (Woody Allen) magic show. She sees the ghost of Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a recently deceased journalist who receives the scoop that Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the Tarot Card Killer.
It’s a wild set up, but the premise involves Sondra and Sid investigating Lyman, with Sondra getting close to him and developing a relationship. She struggles with her actual affections for the man while suspecting him of murder.
The investigation takes some twists and turns, and ultimately they discover that he might not be the murderer, but he definitely did murder a prostitute and staged it to fit the Tarot Card murders. Sid discovers this when Sondra is alone with Lyman. Sondra has abandoned her belief that Lyman is a killer, but he reveals his true nature and tries to drown her, mistakenly believing her to be unable to swim.
Sondra returns triumphantly as Lyman is lying to the police about what happened, and he’s imprisoned. Meanwhile, Sid has gotten into a car crash and died (a pay off of an easy to overlook joke earlier in the film about him struggling with driving on the left side of the road). The film ends with him on a boat with other recently deceased people as death silently leads them across the water. He shows the other people a magic trick. The ending is very similar to Love and Death (1975).
Scoop is a very straightforward, familiar story, but it works hard to get us there. I can’t help but think there might be a better way to set up the basic investigation, instead of using a ghost who appears and gives the main characters all the information they need. The only reason the ghostly apparition exists, plot-wise, is to show that there is an afterlife and to make it so that Sid and Sondra have to work together. It’s a story that doesn’t really need Sid, but the film wouldn’t be much without him.
Sid’s and Sondra’s relationship is the central focus of the film, and it really just seemed to be there to fill space. If you take Sid out of the film, then it’s much shorter or there would need to be a greater emphasis on the actual murder investigation and Sondra’s relationship with Lymen, which is a bit underdeveloped.
It’s like two half-stories that are smushed together so that it makes sense but leaves you wishing there was a little more substance.
My favorite scenes did involve the afterlife. We first meet Joe, the deceased reporter, as he’s on a boat with death who stands menacingly still. I enjoy representations of death in Allen’s films, because even though the characters Allen plays often fret over death and existence, the state of being dead is never all that desolate. In Love and Death Boris danced into the metaphorical sunset with death, and in this film, the characters on the boat with death aren’t all that sad. Joe is still trying to do his job, and Sid continues to perform magic tricks.
It makes death feel like a painting that freezes you as you are, which kind of is what death is like, but for the people who remain alive. We see the dead as they were the last time we saw them. So when we think of Sid, we picture him performing magic tricks, and when we see Joe we picture him hustling for a story (though we never did see him alive).
Death is not presented as an end to the character, but it is an end to the character’s growth.
So as a whole, Scoop is a very light-hearted movie. Nothing is ever that dangerous, like a lot of Allen’s earlier films that seemed to operate in a world devoid of consequence. Even when Sondra is with Lymen, who we know is a killer, it never seems like she’s in any real danger, only the illusion of danger. It’s like the film is just running through the motions of “this is what should happen here.”
I mean, Allen was 70 or 71 when he made this, it makes sense that he might run through the motions a little, especially after making something like Match Point. To put it another way, I imagine it taking him 6 months to write Match Point and his lunch hour to write Scoop.