Woody Allen's second straight English excursion is a failed return to comedy.

London Fog 

Woody Allen's second straight English excursion is a failed return to comedy.

For 35 years, Woody Allen was a long shot to stray into the Bronx or Staten Island, much less the alien reaches of London. The creator of Manhattan has always been joined to his chosen borough like pastrami on rye, so when he ventured abroad last year to direct the intriguing morality tale Match Point, moviegoers were taken aback. George Bush doesn't join the Taliban; Woody Allen doesn't cross the East River.

Allen should have concluded his expatriate foray with Match Point. The second straight film he's made in London — an alleged return to comedy called Scoop — is so flat, dull and off-form that it seems to have been conceived in a fog. It not only lacks the verve and energy of Allen's best New York-based work but also feels culturally adrift, like some bewildered tourist trying to read a city map held upside down.

The latest object of Allen's affections, at least in the dramatic realm, is the nubile Scarlett Johansson, who portrayed a demanding, self-absorbed actress in Match Point and returns here as Sondra Pransky, a naïve American journalism student who's visiting a friend in London when she inadvertently stumbles onto what may turn out to be the murder scandal of the decade. The bespectacled Sondra's reporting skills are limited, to say the least, but she's not above a bit of feminine wile. In Scoop's first scene, the heroine pursues into a London hotel lobby a horny movie director who's about three times her age and, instead of getting an interview, lands in his bed. If, in Allen's scheme of things, wishful thinking here merges with autobiography, so be it. It's a bit tougher to accept the filmmaker's appearance in Scoop as a professional magician named Splendini, who specializes in "de-materializing" women by means of a double-paneled box.

Splendini — Sid Waterman, an old-fashioned vaudevillian to the bone — becomes the unwitting agent of Sondra's investigative and romantic adventures. Plucked from the audience and secreted away in his magic box, the young woman is unexpectedly accosted by a renowned (albeit recently deceased) London newspaperman named Joe Strombel (Deadwood's foul-mouthed Ian McShane). Frustrated that he can no longer get the story himself, the avuncular Joe puts Sondra on the trail of a suave nobleman named Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), who the dead reporter insists is London's new version of Jack the Ripper. Like Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam, canny Joe becomes the protagonist's guide and mentor from beyond the grave.

Allen also insists on having Sondra fall in love with the dashing and possibly dangerous Peter as she snoops into his secrets. In a goofier development, she also recruits the reluctant Sid to play the part of her father. In the end, the semi-dimwitted Sondra gets her man, and Sid Waterman winds up, like Joe Strombel, in limbo — here portrayed as a tramp steamer adrift on a fog-shrouded sea — standing among a group of baffled "passengers" who are wondering where they're headed and why. Given the inertia of Scoop and the uncertain course of Allen's career as it enters twilight, it's an appropriate final image.

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