I think a lot of the coldness towards Woody Allen's Scoop is a factor of it not being the film people wanted him to make. Everyone who loved Match Point expected something of a similar caliber; everyone else is still waiting for an Allen film that achieves some sort of seriousness and meaning.

Scoop is definitely not a serious or meaningful film. It's a lot like his "early funny ones": there is a plot that is in place only to give characters a framework in which to deliver one-liners. There is no grappling with morality, or identity, or sex. There is instead: "If we put our heads together, there'd be a hollow noise."

Being a professional Woody Allen apologist forces one to constantly modulate one's expectations. Did I want Match Point 2? Yes. But that's not what I got. And to be honest, what's here is a distinctly agreeable and enjoyable film, albeit a fairly shallow one.

On the surface this is a murder mystery: Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) is a dead London journalist, and on the boat across Acheron (a visual gag that comes right out of Allen's Love and Death-era fixation with making Bergman funny), he learns that Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), a son of wealth and prestige, may be a notorious serial killer. Cut to: Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson, Woody's new Lasser/Keaton/Farrow but presumably without the sex), American journalism student abroad, who has just volunteered to suffer through the embarassingly cornball magic tricks of Sidney Waterman (Allen), an American who seemingly warped to London straight out of the 1920's vaudeville circuit. Strombel appears to Sondra and gives her the scoop, upon which she drags Sid along (disguised as her father) for a series of screwball attempts to trap Lyman, inevitably falling in love with her quarry.

Before I saw one frame of this film, I was prepared to superficially compare it to Manhattan Murder Mystery, one of the last Allen films that I can unashamedly call a masterpiece. But even superficially, that's not a fair comparison: the earlier film was about a bored marriage receiving spice via the pursuit of a killer; but that requires an investment in character relationships that Scoop is unwilling to make. In interviews, Allen has name-dropped The Thin Man, and while that's both grandiose and self-serving, it's not entirely inaccurate. The point isn't the plot, and the point isn't psychology, the point is listening to two people bicker amusingly. While the 1934 film did that better, there's definitely fun to be had here. For the Woody Allen faithful.

Perhaps in no other film in his career does success depend so entirely on the audience's appreciation for the Allen persona. If you find his sarcastic New Yorker bit unfunny or grating, run. Run far away. Because not only does he engage with it heavily throughout the film, so to does Johansson. I do not mean to slight her performance. Many actors throughout the decades have "done a Woody Allen," meaning that their performance is basically an impression of the writer-director, and often times this is disastrous (Kenneth Branaugh, I'm looking you right in the eye). It's no small victory that Johansson's work is at once so true to Allen's dialogue and yet somehow parodistic that instead of seeing a Woody-beast with two heads careening around London, it's more the voice of young Woody telling old Woody that his schtick is running old. The joke, you see, is not that Sid Waterman is funny; it's that Sid Waterman is so desperate to seem engaging that he's an embarassment to himself and his ersatz daughter.

Scoop is no more than genial. And two years ago, a genial Woody Allen film would have driven me mad with rage. But I can live with it now, especially if Allen tells the truth when he says that this will be the last time he acts (and if so, the end is quite an effective sendoff). The fact is that even at his worst, Woody Allen makes better comedies than just about anything else that grotesquely oozes its way across the American cineplex screen. His comedic glory days are long behind him, but I'd rather watch Scoop - or hell, Anything Else and Hollywood Ending - than whatever the latest Stiller/Vaughan/Ferrell chimera sitting next door might be. It's a cute film. It's a nice film. That might not be everything I'd hoped for, but I'm happy to settle for it.