Wednesday, August 02, 2006

SCOOP: Thoughts on late-period Woody Allen, or That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

In Woody Allen’s later, frisking-about-abroad period, he applies his broad brush, stock neuroses, and lotta-yuks approach to tales set outside the U.S. Scoop is set in London, but still has New York, specifically the borscht belt, as a distant reference point. The magician Allen plays, Sidney Waterman, is a New Yorker, as is Scarlett Johansson’s Sondra Pransky, a college student who has chosen journalism over a career in dental hygiene. Her competing interest in those two careers is supposed to be funny.

The reigning it-girl, Johansson plays a character who is largely a stand-in for Allen himself. Made to seem schlubby—which neither the actress nor the character is—and neurotic, she talks fast, her ideas bubbling up in spurts, just the way Allen does when he’s on a roll. She dresses abominably. Allen’s version of what an American college student would wear involves loose, mismatched separates and dowdy dresses. Invited to a party, Sondra says, “I’ll have to buy a dress.” We see here at the soiree in a black shift that doesn’t showcase any of Scarlett Johansson’s considerable assets (I thought the dress made her ass look big).

I wondered whether Allen thought the character would try to dress like her British friends, except that her British friends look better than she does. Of course, the stereotype of the British woman in unflattering clothes no longer holds, and especially in London. One quick trip to TopShop (I recommend the one at Oxford Circus), and Sondra would have had a snappy dress that wouldn’t seem American at all.

But Johansson’s seductive joie de vivre keeps coming through, especially when she’s torn over her successful seduction of Peter Lyman, played by Hugh Jackman: She doesn’t seem so much troubled by her suspicion that he might be the notorious Tarot Card Killer, as eager to forget all that and enjoy herself with him. And why shouldn’t she? She’s not Allen’s bumbling, possessed neurotic. She valiantly tries to seem as perpetually worried as Allen is, but in her early scenes with Jackman, I kept wanting Johansson to let loose. Although her character is meant to hold back, Johansson can’t—it’s one of the most attractive qualities she has on screen besides her looks.

Hugh Jackman doesn’t do much except stride about in suits and appear a few times naked from the waist up, treats that relieved the film’s periodic tedium. Which brings us to the upper class Brits Allen lampoons in the film. Granted, Woody Allen’s universe would never be mistaken for reality; it’s a hyper-reality seen through a particular shticky lens. Sondra’s British hosts are high-pitched cartoons; at his family’s country estate, Peter Lyman seems preternaturally interested in the estate’s gardens, and not just as a way to get Sondra alone so he can kiss her. Allen’s view of the British aristocracy seems taken from satires of the 1960s; he hasn’t accepted the changes wrought by the Thatcher years, or in the aftermath of Cool Britannia. There are smart jokes to be made about the contemporary British upper class, but Allen isn’t interested in them. Clichés are good enough.

Allen’s acting, as such, is fine when he interacts with the other characters in the scene; when not, he takes refuge in old, tired shtick. The dialogue with Sondra approaches snappiness and is often satisfying. But when Sid Waterman does magic tricks at an upper class garden party, and resorts to “I say, old chap” and similar humor he just put me to sleep. Too often, Allen is performing, not acting, and he is performing for an audience of one: himself, in his guise as the supremely neurotic New York Jewish film nerd.

When Allen makes a film like Match Point, in which he doesn’t appear, the problem doesn’t exist. His presence, however, signals that Woody Allen the director will be directing Woody Allen the actor, who will play Woody Allen the character, regardless of the character’s name. This is not an original observation on my part. What really bothers me is that the category of neurotic New York Jewish film nerd doesn’t hold up any more.

Herewith my reasons why the neurotic NY Jewish nerd no longer works:

  • Nerds now rule the world. They can no longer be dismissed as losers. Sure, you can laugh at them, but at their habits, not at their nerd status. No longer is a nerd an automatic punch line. Hell, Jon Stewart is a nerd, and he’s sexy.
  • Jokes about Jewish names aren’t funny in this multicultural world. After Sid meets Sondra Pransky, he refers to her as Miss Mandelbaum. When she corrects him, he says, “Pransky, Mandelbaum, same holidays.” This might have slayed them at the Friars’ Club in 1964. Now it just falls flat. Who would confuse Pransky and Mandelbaum, except an ignorant person? And when Sid repeatedly tells whoever he meets, “you’re a credit to your race,” we are meant, I suppose, to laugh and at the same time see it as an indication of Sid’s narrow world view. This one falls flat, too.
  • Cliché neurotics no longer exist in the quantities that long ago made Allen’s work (e.g. Annie Hall) funny. The pressures of today’s world are such is that, if neurotics weren’t on Xanax or Zoloft, they’d probably have long ago left New York, one way or the other.
  • The borscht belt humor doesn’t work. Sid sees the estate’s library, and makes a comment that Peter Lyman takes to be about Trollope. Does Sid enjoy reading Trollope? Three guesses as to what trollop Sid says he meant.

Yes, there are occasional laughs, and some of the yuks are entertaining (Sid explains that he doesn’t have to worry about his weight: “My anxiety is like aerobics"). Allen as a magician is funny in concept and reality; Johansson is properly spunky as a brash, unprincipled student journalist. Jackman looks good in a suit (the role is limited). The supporting cast is of fine pedigree, including Ian McShane as a deceased reporter, Margaret Tyzack as a fellow traveler in the last scene, Charles Dance as a newspaper editor, and Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy) as a detective. There were times when I laughed out loud. Mostly, I just wanted Woody Allen to get with it. We’ve all heard it a zillion times, and that joke just isn’t funny anymore.

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