The movie opens with a glowing eulogy being delivered for Joe Strombel, as the listeners are told not to mourn because of how fully and well he lived is life. In that celebratory mode, several colleagues then gather at a pub, toasting his memory. It is clear from their talk that Strombel was an excellent reporter, skilled at getting the stories and getting in and out of scrapes, often through the use of bribery. As they raise their glasses, the scene switches to a boat on a very dark river, filled with the recently dead and piloted by the Grim Reaper himself.
Joe Strombel himself (Ian McShane) is here, and tries to get some information on their destination from Death, including offering a bribe. Death ignores Joe completely. A fellow passenger assures him that Death is not a big one for giving answers, as she has tried also. Joe introduces himself, and says that he died of coronary thrombosis. She introduces herself as Jane Cook, and she believes that she was poisoned.
A dead reporter is still a reporter, so Joe presses for more details. Jane was secretary to Peter Lyman, son of a British Lord and expected to become a very successful politician. As Joe knows, there has been a series of killings over the past few years of prostitutes with short brown hair, each corpse having a tarot card laid down next to it. In one recent case, there was a rare antique cuff link found next to the body, and it matched a pair that Peter had, of which he now only had one. Not sure what to do with this disturbing but highly circumstantial evidence, she called her lawyer to ask for advice. She thought she heard a click on the call, as if someone else was listening on another line. That day after tea, she found herself on the boat.
Joe is intrigued, and cant stop thinking about what a scoop it would be, and how he would investigate it if alive.
We then switch to Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) waylaying famed film director Mike Tinsley in his hotel. Through correspondence with his secretary, he had said if she was ever in town she could interview him, and she has come to do that for the entertainment section of her college newspaper. Although he claims to be busy, and that it will have to be fast, when he takes her to his room he gets her drinking and talking about herself. This is how we learn that she is a journalism student even though she was originally going to be a dental hygienist, and that everyone in her family is into dentistry and orthodontics. She is in England visiting a friend and her family that she met in Palm Beach Florida when her mother won a trip. As she takes her second drink, it is no surprise that we quickly switch to her lamenting that she slept with him and didnt even get the story.
Viviane (Romola Garai) is impressed, finding the director rather hot. She tells Sondra not to worry. They will go to lunch, take her younger brother to this variety show he has been excited about, and then go to a party and try to meet some decent men.
We briefly cut back to the death barge where we see Joe, still preoccupied with the story, finally jump ship and begin to swim away.
At the show, one of the acts is the Great Splendini (Woody Allen). He does various small tricks, then needs a volunteer for molecular rearrangement. Sondra is chosen, and while she is in the box, being made to appear and reappear she encounters the ghost of Joe Strombel, who was trying to focus on journalistic vibes. He tells her his suspicions, and to investigate, or more people will die, then disappears. Sondra reappears to the audience, disoriented by what happened.
She later does a Google search on both the tarot card killer and Peter Lyman, but is not sure what to do. She goes back to visit Splendini (real name Sid Waterman), tells him what happened, and asks to go back in the box. Naturally, he thinks she is crazy, but lets her back in. Nothing happens then, but as he is trying to get her to leave Strombel appears to both of them, giving more details which Sondra writes down, and encouraging them to follow up on the clues. Death then appears and takes him away again.
Sondra convinces Sid to wait around outside Lyman headquarters with her so they can get a good look at Peter (the internet images were not very clear). She thinks they see him, and they follow him by cab to an antique shop, but once there he turns out to be a completely different person, a chiropractor.
Viviane knows that Sondra wants to find out more about Peter, though not that Sondra suspects him of murder. She lets Sondra know that Peter Lyman swims at a certain club every day, and that a business partner of her fathers is a member so can get them in.
Sondra and Sid go to the club, but she is not sure how to meet Peter. Sid suggests feigning drowning so that Peter will need to come to her aid, and wanders off so she can put her plan into action. It works. Peter helps her out of the pool and gives her advice for her leg cramp. As introductions are made, Sondra realizes that she should not be completely open, so says her name is Jade Julliard Spence, and that Sid is her father. Peter is charmed and invites them to a garden party at the Lyman estate.
At the party, Sondra and Peter grow closer, as there is a clear mutual attraction. She pretends to be interested in new age things, like tarot cards, but he denies knowing anything about them when she asks. Sid also does some snooping, and finds an envelope with Betty G scrawled on it in Peters bag. Sid is constantly chatting up the other guests and doing card tricks for them, much like his act. This embarrasses Sondra, but does not seem to bother anyone else, as they rather like the card tricks.
Sondra doubts that Peter could be a murderer, but needs more information. She feels she needs to see where Peter lives, an apartment in town. Visiting him there, they quickly end up in bed. While he is downstairs getting champagne, she looks around the room and begins flipping through an album. He identifies the picture she is looking at as one of his mother, who has short dark hair. She was beautiful, but had fidelity problems. That doesnt really prove anything either.
At another Splendini show, Sid puts a different woman into the cabinet, and when he opens it up to demonstrate that she has disappeared, Strombel pops out and gives Sid a combination, without saying what it is for. The crowd is impressed.
Sid and Sondra get together again, and she realizes the combination must be for a climate controlled room in Peters apartment where they store rare musical instruments. Fortunately, Peter is having a party there to which both are invited, and they will have a chance to check it out.
Sid is supposed to go first, open it up, and be joined by Sondra when she is done distracting Peter. Unfortunately, he gets himself locked in the room first, then tells Sondra the combination through the door. I dont think they find anything this time.
Peter convinces Sondra to stay the night. Later, she cant sleep, and goes back down to the music room. Lifting up a trumpet, she finds an antique deck of tarot cards underneath (she may have found this the first time with Sid, not sure). Peter wakes up, but she comes in with a class of milk, saying she couldnt sleep, before he discovers where she was.
She still has no actual proof, and feels horrible when Peter gives her a very expensive bracelet for her birthday. She claims that birthdays make her sad, and he is sorry to have to be leaving town, but promises they will celebrate when he gets back. Sid does take her out to dinner that night, and while they are waiting for the main course Sondra spies Peter walking outside. She gets Sid to pay so they can follow, but they lose his trail. Suddenly there is screaming that a woman has been strangled. The Tarot Card Killer has struck again.
Now Sondra feels like she must tell someone, but it still sounds too crazy for the police, so she and Sid go to see a newspaper friend of Vivianes father. They reveal their source, but imply Joe gave the information before he died, which seems unlikely to the editor. Although not unkindly, he pokes several holes in Sondras work, and then reveals it is all beside the point because the police have apprehended the real Tarot Card Killer, a paranoid delusional man who knows things that only the murderer could know and has confessed to everything.
Although relieved that Peter is not a killer, Sondra feels guilty for lying and angry at Strombel. She starts to confess to Peter, but he has a confession of his own. He did not really leave town but had to handle some sensitive company business and needed to keep things secret so the press would not be alerted. Sondra feels hers is worse, but he takes it quite well, amused that anyone could think he is a killer and wanting to start all over with her. He says the cards were going to be a gift for her because she said she was interested in tarot.
Sid is becoming more suspicious, however. As he tries to explain to Sondra on the phone that if you were being blackmailed by a prostitute and needed to get rid of her, you could make it look like one of the other killings to provide a cover. As she hangs up, we see that Strombel gave this theory to Sid, and tells him to look after Sondra. She hates Joe now, but she is a decent kid and he doesnt want to see her hurt. He fades away for the last time, having used up all of his tricks for eluding Death.
Sid goes and starts talking to the neighbors of one of the murdered girls, Elizabeth Gibson. While it was well known that she was a prostitute, the last person he talks to confirms that she was called Betty (Betty G.), she did have regular clients, including one rich kid Peter Yardley (Yardley was the name of Peters favorite aftershave), and that although the crime scene photos showed her with short dark hair, she had been a baby-faced blond. She cut and died her hair shortly before she died, possibly at the request of a client. Sid tries to convey this to Sondra by phone, but she thinks he is being ridiculous. She does not know that Peter is listening.
Sid goes back to Peters apartment. Peter has taken Sondra to his country estate. Sid tells the housekeeper he is going up to visit them, and asks her to find Sondras red sweater upstairs. While she is looking, he goes down to the music room to check the deck for a missing card. The deck is gone, but there is a key. On a hunch he takes the key, but is discovered leaving the room by the housekeeper. He says Peter gave him the combination, then quickly leaves. Returning to Bettys apartment, he confirms that the key fits the door. He begins driving madly out of the city to go save her, but he has always had trouble with staying on the correct side of the road in England, and after seeing him having a hard and stressful time with it, you hear a bad sounding crash off screen.
Sondra and Peter go out on a rowboat. In the middle of the lake things suddenly stop being romantic when he tells her she needs to drown. He was being blackmailed by Betty, and couldnt risk the potential damage to his career, so he studied the tarot card killings and made Bettys death look like one. Now she would have to drown, and Sid was on the way but would be taken care of later, and after all there was no real connection between them, so the two deaths would not be linked. Sondra screams, but no one is around, they struggle, and he pushes her out of the boat. She struggles and disappears under the water. Peter quickly rows back to the dock, gets out and pushes the boat back into the lake, then calls the police to report a drowning.
You see one officer say they think they know where the body is, as two detectives ask for more details. Peter says he was inside listening to music, and Sondra had said she wanted to commune with nature. Ironically, they met when he was saving her from drowning, as she was a very weak swimmer. Suddenly, a soaked Sondra appears in the doorway saying that was a lie too. In reality she was captain of the swim team.
Throughout the film, you had been getting the impression that Sondra would make a much better hygienist than journalist, but that has turned around now as the editor is praising her article, calling it wonderful investigation and saying it is an honor for his paper to run it. Sondra says she could not have done it without two men: Joe Strombel, who taught her so much about investigation, and the late Sid Waterman Splendini. Whereever he is, she will never forget him.
Back on the death barge, Sid is regaling fellow passengers with tales of his crash and gets ready to do a card trick.