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Wayback Wednesday: Woody

June 17, 2009

With Whatever Works opening in selected theaters Friday, this week’s Wayback Wednesday looks back at a couple of Woody Allen’s recent Euro-efforts.

Match Point

Like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, Woody Allen has been around long enough to accrue the sort of legendary status that invites critics to freely abuse terms like “comeback,” “return to form” and (shudder) “masterpiece.” Fans of these artists have to tread carefully, sift through the accolades and wonder: “Is this really the greatest thing since Blood on the Tracks or Manhattan?”

In the case of Match Point, the raves reached critical mass hysteria at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was greeted as a daring foray by Allen into the realm of the Hitchcockian thriller. But although the movie does find the steadfast New Yorker venturing outside his comfort zone, there’s an old familiar song at its core.

This is not immediately apparent, however, and indeed the early scenes have an almost startling freshness that makes you want to give Match Point the benefit of the doubt. Much of this is due to the London setting and the largely British cast. Allen’s dialogue has become almost unbearably stilted in recent films like Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda, often bearing little resemblance to conversational speech. Somehow, the English accents and British colloquialisms breathe new life into his words, drawing us into the story of former tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).

Down on his luck, Chris is reduced to giving lessons to the rich and snobby. He befriends client Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) as well as Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), with whom he strikes up a romance. Drawn into their world of operas and fine dining, Chris eventually abandons tennis in favor of an office job with the company owned by Hewett patriarch Alec (Brian Cox).

It’s a cushy life, threatened by Chris’s fascination with Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring actress from America who happens to be Tom’s fiancée. Revealing too much of the plot would be unfair; suffice it to say that complications, twists and bloodshed all ensue.

This may sound like groundbreaking territory for Allen, but in execution it plays an awful lot like the Martin Landau storyline in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Once again Allen is wrestling with the big moral questions, and the result is a film that gets sketchier and more contrived as it goes along. It’s a meditation on the nature of luck – the idea that the ball can just as easily bounce one way or the other in a Godless universe. There are some fine performances here, notably from Johansson and Rhys-Meyers (who calls to mind a young Malcolm McDowell), and a few sparks of ingenuity. But although the surroundings may be unfamiliar, make no mistake: we’ve been here before with Woody Allen.

Scoop

Mere months after the release of Match Point, Woody Allen has returned to merry old England and reunited with star Scarlett Johannson. This jaunt across the Atlantic finds the aging writer/director in a lighter mood, although that’s not necessarily a good thing.

This time Johannson is student reporter Sondra Pransky, a Brooklyn girl spending her summer with family friends in London. Like many actors in Allen films, ranging from John Cusack to Kenneth Branagh, Johannson incorporates the director’s trademark stammering, gesticulating mannerisms into her performance. This becomes slightly distracting when Allen himself enters the picture as prestidigitator Sid Waterman, another Brooklynite who is performing in London under the stage name Splendini.

Sondra attends Waterman’s magic show and is selected from the audience to participate in the disappearing lady trick. When Waterman seals her inside the box and says the magic words, an apparition materializes before her. This is Joe Strombel (Deadwood’s Ian McShane), an investigative reporter who has received a hot tip on a big story. He decides to pass it on to the amateur Sondra only because he has rather inconveniently died recently.

Strombel has reason to believe that upper-class socialite Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is actually a serial killer who has been murdering prostitutes in London. Enlisting Waterman to pose as her father, Sondra infiltrates Lyman’s world of posh clubs, garden parties and teatime socials. But even as she continues investigating him, Sondra finds herself falling in love with Lyman.

Like so many of the Woodman’s comedies over the past dozen or so years, Scoop begins with a wispy premise and spins it into a dawdling doodle of a movie. It’s been clear for a while that Allen’s comedic gifts are in serious decline, and his latest effort wastes no time in proving the point. After an opening scene in which the late Strombel is toasted by his former colleagues, the action shifts to a boat full of dearly departed crossing the river Styx, with Strombel aboard and the Grim Reaper in the prow. In a vintage Allen comedy like Love and Death, this would a situation ripe with ingenious gags and crackling one-liners. Here…nothing. Strombel simply jumps overboard.

The lack of inspiration carries over through the rest of the movie, which liberally borrows from the extensive Allen catalogue. The director’s own character is another variation on his low-rent show biz schnook from Broadway Danny Rose. The bumbling serial killer investigation recalls Manhattan Murder Mystery, and the notion of the “disappearing lady” box having supernatural powers derives from Allen’s short “Oedipus Wrecks” segment of the 1989 anthology film New York Stories.

Of course, “Oedipus Wrecks” was only about a half-hour long, a fact that sheds some light on the problem with latter-day Woody Allen comedies. They all have their chuckle-worthy moments, but they’re built on such flimsy foundations, they can’t possibly support a full ninety minutes. Scoop is no exception.

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