Woody Allen returns this weekend as Sidney Waterman, an aging Borscht Belt magician with a silly stage handle -- Splendini -- and props that seem more like fire hazards than things one might use to make a living. Don't wait around for the prestige in Splendini's act -- you'll be waiting a long time. There's only a bare minimum of effort as he shuffles around in comfortable old duds, converses with the audience while he's supposed to be entertaining them, uses words like 'prestidigitation' and beckons the prettiest girl in the crowd up on stage so he can leer at her while promising to "agitate her molecules." Splendini's magic show is such a narrow affair it could only be attended by a crowd that has sought it out and arrived at the theater with total precognition of what's in store for them. The same holds true for Scoop, the second entry in Woody's Late European Period.

The lovely assistant summoned to the stage is journalism student Sondra Pransky, played by sore-throat ingenue Scarlett Johansson. Sondra is pushed into Splendini's disappearance box about the same time that he's seeing another volunteer -- a pasty Brit -- off stage, telling her "thanks, you're a credit to your race." Inside the box, Sondra is only mildly shocked to discover it's the domain of a ghost, played by Deadwood star Ian McShane. The ghost was a journalist who was killed after possibly learning the identity of the elusive Tarot Card Killer. Based on that unsourceable info, Sondra sets off on a wild scoop-chase with Sidney at her side. An atom of decency -- ours, not Woody's -- demands that their relationship quickly fold into a father-daughter rhythm, with Sondra pulling doting dad-figure Sidney around town by the ear and bouncing her theories about the identity of the killer off his Hubble-thick glasses. Their frantic quest is contrasted by the fate of the poor ghost, who is adrift on a fog-swept barge to nowhere that's crewed by the actual Grim Reaper. Backed into a corner by his own acknowledgment of an afterlife, Allen comes through with one that's as pointless as possible.

When the ghost's tip leads to a dead end -- information exchange between this world and the next is a crap shoot -- Sondra does exactly what the Columbia School of Journalism prescribes for a reporter who has run out of leads: She assumes a sexy alter-ego and moves in on a suspect's life. The suspect is Hugh Jackman, the only member of this little clarinet band who blows too many wrong notes. He has the look of an actor whose agent returned Woody's call without asking first. As English blue-blood playboy Peter Lyman, he hardly gives a performance at all and melts into the background when the other players come on screen, as if he were directed to do so. A minor actor could have handled this part; the role didn't require a thespian who boasts serious credentials like Wolverine. Johansson, on the other hand, has work to do. She gets to stretch her acting muscles here, at least in comparison with her recent choices. Woody has deliberately yanked her away from her two biggest hooks -- the slow-thinking posture and the raw, my-eyes-are-up-here sexuality.

At the press junket for Scoop, some wag asked Johansson to tick off things she had in common with Woody Allen. She returned the serve: "He's a 70-year old man ...". Despite that, I'm inclined to say this couple makes as interesting an on-screen duo as any other nominees in this year's lackluster field. There's just something infectious about them. "We need clues! We need a lead!" she squeals at him at one point while they are racing around town in a European minicar that could be folded and placed in the trunk of an S.U.V. Why not build an entire murder mystery franchise out of these characters? Even when the flat, low-energy tone occasionally tempted us to nod off, there'd still be Johansson to look at. Her Sondra Pransky attire -- chaste reading glasses and smart office-temp skirts -- ironically dials up her sexuality instead of tamping it down, which may have been the intention. The more you think about it, the more this character seems like someone's grad-school sex fantasy come to life. The alias she dons for her alter-ego -- Jade -- is also one we've heard from Woody Allen before, so maybe it has a meaning to him. Some busty gun moll shiksa from his dreams?

Last year's Match Point was so concerned with story -- Woody was surprised to have conjured a good one -- that we couldn't evaluate the success of his larger project, to make comfortable chairs out of other world capitals besides his beloved Manhattan. At age 70, he didn't go to Britain to be changed, but to roll his cosmopolitan bubble into a new neighborhood that has enough green space to accommodate it. I have no idea why the move was necessary -- financial reasons, maybe -- but I like to think it's because in today's increasingly corporate office-park Manhattan, Judy Davis couldn't have a proper hissy fit in public without some nudnik asking her to respect a noise ordinance and put out her cigarette while she's at it. This cigar and brandy murder mystery, with only a dandelion of plot encircling the actors, feels like vintage Allen. That comfortable, weightless hum that attends his most relaxed projects has been recreated whole. Even the killer's fancy-pants sobriquet -- Tarot Card Killer - signifies not a dedicated, bloodthirsty ripper, but a lazy toff who yawns at the world and kills for the same reason Woody makes a movie every time the leaves change -- to punch through the dreariness of existence in a collapsing universe.