Bracketed by fatalities, Scoop opens with the passing of renowned reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), who hears some nasty gossip while Death (in the usual black robe with face obscured) is ferrying him down the River Styx on the world's slowest boat (What's the rush?) to Hades. Strombel slips overboard and returns to London, hoping to pass his sensational news onto a living reporter who will thoroughly investigate the item and be the first to publish it.

By chance, the reporter he contacts turns out to be novice journalism graduate Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), a visiting American who happens to be attending mediocre magician Splendini's (Woody Allen) delightfully cornball show. Sondra volunteers to let herself be placed in a "molecule-changing" box. Once there, she is astonished to discover the ghost of Strombel, who informs her that a high-ranking member of the peerage, one Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), is actually a serial killer. He urges her to research the story and then-when she has proof of his guilt-grab the scoop of the year.

To accomplish this task, Sondra enlists the timorous, cowardly Splendini, whose real name is Sid Waterman, to befriend Lord Lyman. Pretending to be father and daughter, they scheme to meet him at his exclusive club, posing as wealthy tourists. At the first opportunity, they snoop around Lyman's palatial estate as well as his London pad. In the process, Sondra finds herself falling in love with the handsome aristocrat, who seems to be equally smitten with her. Halfway into her efforts to build a case against him, she desperately hopes that someone else will turn out to be the perpetrator, freeing the "innocent" Lord Lyman to marry her.

Woody Allen, brilliantly playing Woody Allen, ensures by his ridiculous persona that not a moment of this film will be taken seriously. All deaths-and most of the love-making-occur off-screen. Voyeurs are wasting their time in this genteel world. Allen's presence alone mitigates most of the tension, resulting in a very droll comedy but too-well-mannered murder mystery bereft of terror or suspense.

As the patter between Sondra and the Great Splendini provides the bulk of the laughs, most of the other characters look tediously wooden by contrast. McShane's manic frenzy as Strombel is a one-note performance that verges on the redundant. Radiant and charming, the plucky Johansson appears genuinely grateful for the opportunity to speak Allen's second-best dialogue here, which obviously gets more of a rise out of her than scenes in which her character falls in love or fights for her life. But then the plot fizzles even as the jokes sizzle.

-Bruce Feld