Opens at Seven Gables and others, Fri., July 28. Rated PG-13. 96 minutes.

A sophomore slump has claimed Woody Allen, the talented young unknown director who made such a strong impression last year with his breakthrough London noir Match Point. That debut, coming from seemingly nowhere, made a star of the shy, budding New York filmmaker, who, in pointed contrast to many of today's big-name directors, was too modest to appear in his own movie. Now, inexplicably, he's placed himself front and center in the paranormal crime caper Scoop. Worse, he's layered himself beneath old-age prosthetics, adopted a hunched posture and annoying stammer, and even topped it off with an unflattering bald spot. Then, more unpardonably, he's directed co-star Scarlett Johansson to mimic every aspect of his grating performance. She, too, talks with a Brooklyn accent, wears old-fashioned glasses, whines neurotically, and splutters the simplest lines. As if Allen really needed five minutes to get through, "But . . . but . . . this, ahem [fiddle with glasses], you know [swallow, smack lips] . . . I mean, it's just . . . [wipe mouth with dry, scaly hand] . . . craaa-zy."

Where have I heard such awful dialogue before? It sounds so familiar, like something from the '70s or '80s, and yet I just can't place the source.

Johansson plays an American college student, an aspiring journalist boarding for the summer with a posh London family. Called onstage at magician Allen's two-bit show, placed inside one of those Chinese vanishing boxes, she's startled to find the ghost of a recently deceased English newspaperman (Ian McShane of Deadwood), who gives her the story lead of a lifetime: A serial murderer known as the Tarot Card Killer is actually a famous aristocrat (Hugh Jackman). Now if she can only meet the rich, charming killer without falling in love with him, get him to confess, and file her story, she'll be like her idols, Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, in some kind of 1930s paranormal crime caper movie.

That a college girl in 2006 would cite Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell as role models is cute, but I think the Scary Movie series would be a more likely frame of reference. Why has Allen insisted on shackling Johansson to such a retro conceit? The whole affair is set up like an old Bob Hope comedy—bumbling detectives, inconvenient ghosts, intrepid girl reporter, and Allen as the cowardly Yank jester trying to mingle with the British swells. True, as one would expect from Allen's youthful, wired generation, the detectives do use Google and a cell phone or two, but if you're going to have a ghost movie, make more of the ghost! (It's not often a film makes you think, "Could we have more computer effects, please?") Even dead, McShane is the liveliest figure in Scoop; he's also every journalist's dream—an impeccable editor and source from beyond the grave, like Topper with an Underwood, who doesn't even ask to share the byline.

The good news here is that after such a dismal attempt at comedy, for which he obviously has no gift, Allen can return to crime thrillers. He's young enough that we can expect many, many more pictures from the long, long career that undoubtedly lies ahead of him.

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