If you believe he, at some point in his career (you pick when), really was good for a really long time, then there's no question his films have dropped off considerably. If you believe, though, that he's been all over the board with his films throughout his career, following up important works with trivial ones -- pairing the novel with the trite, the deeply instructive with the merely cute -- then for the last few years he's just been doing what he's always done, living hand to mouth intellectually, paying the bills with kitsch and kvetch until struck by his next big idea.
I tend to side with the latter assessment. (Didn't his early work go something like Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan then, Stardust Memories -- a modest two for six?) But each of his post-millenial films has left me inching steadily toward the other camp. After watching Scoop, I believe I took a whole step. Though it's an energetic and generally agreeable film, Allen's latest is overeager and plagued by good actors giving bad performances of annoying characters.
Scarlett Johansson is a naively slutty (aren't they all?) journalism student named Sondra Pransky who's on holiday in Britain, staying with some family friends. Allen plays Splendini, a wise-ass magician, prognosticator and all around dotard. Splendini (aka Sid Waterman) and Sondra's paths cross at his magic show. He calls her up on stage for a disappearing act, but young Ms. Pransky gets more than she bargained for. The ghost of Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a legendary newshound, tells her about a serial murder scandal that's potentially bigger than Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper, Sondra asks, "Is that capitalized?" Ten minutes in and already infuriating. Things only get worse.
It's pretty safe to say that the Woody Allen of big insights about men and women is gone. Whether he'll be back to his old form is an argument for idealists and cynics (and ageists and AARP members) to squabble over. Allen's never had a tough time talking, and even here his wit is often sharp, but talking isn't the same as saying things and it's that -- saying things -- that's been tripping him up lately.