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Serial Biller 

Woody Allen's perennial filmmaking comes close to quantity over quality.

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"Scoop," a murder-mystery-comedy, manages to both support that charge and undermine it. On the one hand, it's very enjoyable. On the other, it seems like a blend of the two that preceded it, as if Allen realized only after the fact that he had created rashly, that the ideas of both "Melinda and Melinda" and "Match Point," extracted and reconfigured, would make a really decent movie.

"Scoop" — breezy, witty and buoyant — is the best of the three and a wonderful antidote to the lumbering summer blockbusters bombarding theaters every weekend. It's a very funny vehicle for Scarlett Johansson as an innocent American enmeshed in a farcical London mystery. Allen plays Splendini, an old-style traveling stage magician who pulls Sondra Pransky (Johansson) from the audience one night.

When Splendini, aka Sid Waterman, places Sondra in a disappearing chamber, she's visited by the ghost of the recently departed ace reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) — who got a tip of a lifetime, unfortunately while on his way to the afterlife. London is being terrorized by a serial killer leaving tarot cards on his victims. Strombel, on the boat to the underworld, meets the former secretary to young Lord Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman). She believes that Lyman is the killer and that he murdered her to keep her quiet.

"Scoop" offers an interesting twist on the comic/straight-man team. Throughout movie history, such pairs have traditionally been composed of a smart straight arrow and a hilarious goof getting them into messes. Allen, intentionally or just by habit, turns this around, making himself a bothered and acerbic all-business type who turns in the most funny moments, making Johansson the earnest but bumbling sidekick.

The auxiliaries are as entertainingly idiosyncratic as the principals. McShane, best known as the steely-eyed king pimp on "Deadwood," is perfect in his small but important role as a newshound on the trail from the beyond, slipping away from Death (Peter Mastin) at every opportunity to provide leaks, secret codes and other hot tips to Sondra. He never cracks a smile, delivering his missives from the grave while scanning some unseen horizon for Death, and his seriousness is the most obvious example of Allen's ability to move a plot and let the jokes develop out of the friction created by natural incongruities.

"Scoop" is a work of many colors, and there are also many hilarious setups. In one, Sid and Sondra masquerade as father and daughter in order to meet the wealthy Lord Lyman at his swim club, in the hopes he will notice Sondra in her swimsuit. The mere sight of Sid, "of the Hebrew persuasion," as he puts it, in such a WASPish establishment is convulsively funny. Later he will entertain Lord Lyman's guests with card tricks, and then take a great deal of their money in poker. The scenes also show Allen's eye for running sight gags. Sid stands out not only because of his cheap polyester blazers and therapeutic shoes, but also because Allen has cast everyone around him at least a foot taller, invoking a bit of Chaplin's little tramp and playing up the comic pomposity of the elite.

Allen also might be the first director to see the narrow potential in Johansson and exploit it to the fullest. Both definitions of the term "boob" apply equally well to her qualifications, making her as well-suited to play the empty bombshell in "Match Point" as this earnest middle American. It's her best role to date, allowing her to be ingenue, temptress and dolt wrapped into one. Both Johansson and Jackman (almost unrecognizable) owe their transformations, in a large part, to Allen's great gifts with the characters.

Almost all artists seem to experience a decline in later years, especially when they explode with such innovative force as Allen did with some of his early films. It's difficult, however, to say that none of his movies is good anymore. Maybe they don't all demand repeat viewings. "Scoop" is no groundbreaking "Annie Hall," but you could stand to see it more than once. That might be the best tip at the box office this summer. 96 min. PG-13. **** S



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