Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) is dead. He was a much-respected journalist who secured some of the best stories the newspapers ever saw in his lifetime, and his roguish charm allowed him to get away with murder. Not literally, of course, but as he sails to the afterlife with Charon steering the boat, he gets one last scoop on an actual killer. One of his co-passengers (Fenella Woolgar) tells him that she believes she has been murdered, and that her boss, a British nobleman called Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), was the culprit. But how can Strombel get this sensational tale to the public if he's dead?
Poor Scarlett Johansson. Hardly anyone can pronounce her name correctly, it's not Jo- as in yo-yo, it's Jo- as in jokes, which coincidentally is what she was tackling in her second Woody Allen film after Match Point. Allen had designed the role for her specifically, believing there was untapped comic potential there, but as it turned out not many agreed and the film did not even get a release in Britain - this was a BBC production and the first time many there saw it was when it was shown by the corporation on television. But there were some who thought Scoop underrated.
And it's by no means unwatchable, it's simply so flimsy that a good sneeze would blow it away. Allen seemed to be thinking along the lines of updating the old mixture of fantasy-comedy-thillers from the forties for this, so there is a ghost, Strombel, and a thriller element in that Peter is suspected of being a serial killer, and humour in that American journalism student in London Sondra (Johansson) has been assigned to get to the bottom of the mystery when she is invited onstage by a magician, Splendini (Allen), and made to disappear in his cabinet.
But as she waits to reappear, Sondra is visited by the deceased reporter and given the task of tracking down Peter and bringing him to justice. She is shocked, but cannot go to the police because nobody would believe her story, so returns to see Splendini, real name Sid Waterman, the next day and asks him to put her in the cabinet again to see if Strombel reappears. He does, and orders her to follow the aristocrat which she does with Sid posing as her father, eventually wangling her way into Peter's circle of friends and accidentally falling in love with him - don't worry, she doesn't fall for Sid, as Allen might have scripted a few years before; even if the audience could accept the ghost, that was too far-fetched.
Allen is doing his comedy shtick here, and Sid can be quite amusing with his empty flattery and regular magic tricks (we never get the sense this is a brilliant magician working here, which adds to the humour). Johansson meanwhile is doing what many of the director's stars do in his comedies, and that is channel the man in their performance, resulting in a goofy protagonist who happens to look like one of the world's most glamorous movie stars, a curious combination. Sondra is also surprisingly quick to fall into bed with any man who takes her eye, something you would not have got in a forties version of the same plot. Surrounding all this, fans of British comedy will enjoy seeing a host of homegrown talent in tiny roles, but this is really a film where you appreciate the window dressing and ignore the rest: it's achingly predictable and never overwhelmingly hilarious. It's a minor work, but painless.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.