It’s a classic summer dilemma: Nebbish guy meets beautiful girl—say, on a beach—and struggles to find some way, any way, to impress her. Not having washboard abs or bulging pecs or nonprescription sunglasses, he relies on what he does possess—smarts. Normally this story does not end well. But every once in a while (or so nebbish mythology tells us), the guy strives and strains to impress the girl and she, in turn, inspires him to come up with something extraordinary: a witty joke. Then the woman laughs, the two click, and something quite wonderful starts up between them.
Now, Woody Allen doesn’t seem like he spends much time surfside. And Scarlett Johansson’s idea of summer in the city is “to get inside as soon as possible,” though she will be shuttling out to the Hamptons to film The Nanny Diaries (also why she’s gone brunette). Furthermore, their flirtation is strictly professional, played out on London film sets rather than hot sand.
Still, you can’t help imagining that Woody has been trying harder than ever to be funny for the sake of a beautiful woman—and it’s paid off. His two films with Johansson, Match Point and the forthcoming Scoop (July 28), have been his best in years. Scoop is old-school Allen comedy—a murder mystery solved by an aging magician (guess who) and a naïve young blonde (Johansson)—peppered with vintage-Woody one-liners. On how he maintains his svelte figure, his character responds, “I never gain an ounce. My anxiety acts like aerobics.” And then there’s his religious biography. “I was born into the Hebrews,” he stutters, “but as I got older, I converted to narcissism.”
When asked if he wrote those lines to impress Johansson, Woody doesn’t disagree—but he offers a caveat: “It’s very hard to be extra witty around a sexually overwhelming, beautiful young woman who is wittier than you are. Anytime I say anything amusing, Scarlett tops me.”
“It’s our shtick,” says Johansson, describing their update on the old Billy Wilder–Marilyn Monroe routine, in which Allen plays the mischievous old wiseacre and Johansson sunnily gives as good as she gets. After they hit it off on the set of Match Point, ribbing each other ceaselessly, Johansson told Woody she’d love to act with him onscreen—and Woody drummed up a script in a matter of months.
“He has a giant brain, which he says is due to the fact that he tried to impress the girls when he was younger,” she says. “But that’s not true. He has a genuine thirst for knowledge. And he’s a very passionate person about work and music and all kinds of things—certainly about women.”
Scoop is also a romance (with Hugh Jackman as the leading man, and not Woody, in case you were worried), and Johansson says she’s been surprised to find that Woody’s “actually very sweet and thoughtful and romantic, in his own strange way.”
Of course, part of their shtick is that the two compliment each other to the point of absurdity. Allen, film’s most famous atheist, has even said Scarlett was “touched by God.” So has Scarlett made Woody a believer?
“I can only quote myself from the movie Manhattan,” he says. “Scarlett is God’s answer to Job. God would say, ‘I’ve created a terrifying and horrible universe, but I can also make one of these, so stop complaining.’ ”