Thursday, August 3, 2006

Woody Allen’s latest role may be his most unlikely yet: box-office hero.

It might be hard to believe of the director responsible for recent flops like “Melinda and Melinda” and “Anything Else,” which each grossed less than $4 million in the United States. Movies like those have made an exile of one of the quintessential American filmmakers. Studios here no longer offer him creative freedom. “They want to read the script. They want to know who I’m going to cast,” Mr. Allen recently told the Boston Globe.

Mr. Allen may be having the last laugh. He’s making a tidy profit for his new European backers. His latest film, “Scoop,” opened a week ago and made $3.7 million its first weekend. This might not seem like much, but the movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman cost only $4 million to make. It’s virtually guaranteed to make a profit, something many expensive blockbusters can’t claim.

“Scoop” could end up being as successful as last year’s “Match Point.” That was Mr. Allen’s first movie made in London — a condition of his investors was that he film there — and his first to surpass $20 million at the domestic box office since 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

“Match Point” made more than $55 million overseas — the director is popular abroad — for a total of $78 million worldwide. That doesn’t include DVD sales.

Not bad for a movie that cost only $15 million to make.

Mr. Allen’s career may have finally come full circle: from box-office star to pride of the intelligentsia and back again. The director is satisfying audiences again at the same time critics are abandoning him.

Woody Allen began his career in the late 1960s with crowd-pleasing comedies like the crime caper “Take the Money and Run” and the political satire “Bananas.” These movies cost $2 or $3 million and could gross 10 times that. “Love and Death” made more than $20 million in 1975. Two years later, Mr. Allen’s masterpiece “Annie Hall” made $38 million.

The very next year, he made the first of his Ingmar Bergman-inspired dramas, “Interiors.” The public started abandoning him; the film made only $10 million and cost that much to make. With just two exceptions — “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” — Mr. Allen never broke $20 million again, until “Match Point.”

He became seen as an elite taste, an auteur the critics in New York and Los Angeles liked, but not those living in between. Films like “Stardust Memories” and “Alice” received good reviews but did poorly at the box office. “September” made less than half a million.

Now his career appears headed in the opposite direction. He had a box-office smash with “Match Point,” and “Scoop” is poised for success. Audiences are responding well to the murder mystery-comedy. “Scoop” came in 13th at the box office its opening weekend but had the second-highest per-screen average of the top 15. “Lady in the Water” was in six times as many theaters, but made only about twice as much.

While audiences are filling theaters, critics have been tepid at best. Regular screenings have been filled with laughter. But at the press preview I attended, the other critics were mostly silent, though this is Mr. Allen’s funniest movie in years.

Rotten Tomatoes, which collates critical opinion, finds “Scoop” has just 39 percent positive reviews. Incredibly, the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter declares, “‘Scoop’ is the worst movie Woody Allen has ever made.” The Chicago Sun-Times’ Jim Emerson was representative of many critics: “‘Scoop’ feels like the leftovers from [‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’], after they’ve been strained through ‘The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.’”

Yet few complained that “Match Point” bore many similarities to “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” (And many critics think Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his 1934 film “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is even better than the original.)

It seems clear why audiences like “Scoop.” Mr. Allen has returned to the old-fashioned style of Jewish humor that first made him a star. He’s using fresh and talented big-name stars, like Miss Johansson and Mr. Jackman. (His next movie, filming in London, stars Colin Farrell, currently tops at the box office in “Miami Vice.”)

Perhaps critics like you better when you’re not a success.

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