Dir: Woody Allen. US.2002. 112 mins.

Woody Allen's HollywoodEnding follows more in thevein of his recent run of pleasurable but throwaway comedies than it does thefar more emotionally affecting Purple Rose Of Cairo, his other film to deal specifically with cinema itself. With an emphasis on visual humour, both literal and figurative,and some well-aimed if obvious potshots at Hollywood's commercialcrassness, filmmakers' self-indulgent tendencies and even France'sartistic pretensions, it is a pitch-perfect choice as opening night film forthis year's Cannes Film Festival in May. However, much like his owncentral character, Allen could have made this film with its stock-in-tradecaricatures and familiar neuroses, with his eyes closed.

Allen's determinedefforts to raise his public profile of late will certainly help draw extraattention to its release, when the film opens this week in the US. And the manyphysical gags communicate their amusement easily across international cultures.But, for all its priceless one-liners, Hollywood Ending remains too much of an overstretched central joke tohave a chance of breaking much beyond the glass ceiling of his historic boxoffice appeal.

Even more than usualwith Allen's cinema, Hollywood Ending's subject matter tempts us all to read overtautobiographical references. For while Purple Rose used the celluloid world as a backdrop to explorethe theme of fantasy versus reality, this one exposes the actual filmmaking process, with Allen himself portraying a washed-up director undone by his ownpsychological hang-ups. Nonetheless, the real-life director himself hasinsisted that this project did not start out as a satiric swipe at theHollywood studio system or a belated attempt at self-parody. Instead, he beganwith the notion of psychosomatic blindness and decided that filmmaking as aprofession presented the best comedic possibilities for milking such a conceitfor all its humorous and punning worth.

That all said,Allen's own views on the Los Angeles entertainment business, and hisevident contempt for its middle-of-the-road sensibilities, are telegraphedright from the start. In a wonderfully brisk opening scene that demonstratesAllen's celebrated gift for storytelling economy, we immediately learnall there is to know about the dynamic between the various central charactersand why it will be only a matter of time before comic disaster strikes.

At astudio meeting, a production executive (Leoni) persuades her oily boss and nowfiance (Williams) that her former husband (Allen) would be the perfectchoice to direct a $60m Manhattan gangster noir set in the 1940s. "Thestreets of New York are in his marrow," she says, knowing full well thathis career has gone so far done the toilet that he is now directing 'runaway'commercials in Canada. Only problem is her ex is also an emotionally unhingedhypochondriac who harbours bitterness towards both her and the studio boss aboutto throw his filmmaking career a new lifeline.

In an effort to asserthis auteur credentials, Allen's character immediately sets aboutturning what is supposed to be a routine Hollywood remake into an artisticstatement, complete with Chinese cinematographer unable to speak a word ofEnglish. Such a situation would be pregnant enough with dire possibility, butthere is worse in store. On the eve of shooting, Allen loses his eyesight, anhysterical affliction his analyst ascribes to latent anxieties. Any otherfilmmaker might come clean at this point but this one is so desperate toresurrect his cinematic livelihood he continues with the shoot regardless,hoping no one else will catch on. Cue all the jokes you can think of about"visionary" directors.

Although Allen clearlyhas insight, pun intended, into the farcical chaos that is filmmaking, he seemsto have allowed his own joke-telling needs to blind him to someuncharacteristic gaps in storytelling logic. It is hard to believe that hischaracter would not have resorted to wearing shades to better mask hissightless bumbling. And why is he perpetually unable to at least direct hiseyes towards those who are speaking' Given the pivotal importance of thiscentral plot gimmick, such oversights become an obtrusive distraction.

At least the filmindustry, with its history of older men squiring much younger starlets, providesthe aging Allen with a good alibi for being entangled with yet another bevy ofnubile beauties. As written, Thiessen and Messing are little more thanwindow-dressing, but Leoni, in the characteristic role of Allen'swise-cracking female interest, more than holds her own as a comedienne with amore brittle edge than most of his heroines. She and Rydell, as Allen'sloyal old-timer of an agent, are the acting standouts.

With a title like HollywoodEnding, one would expect a funnyfinale - and one, involving France's own judgmental blindnesswhen it comes to cinema, is duly given. The joke, like most everything in thissurprisingly good-natured, sunny-hued look at the studio hands that continue tofeed Allen, is an affectionate dig at the country that has always welcomedhis oeuvre, a kindness that the quintessential New York filmmaker is finally reciprocating with hisfirst ever presence on the Croisette.

The film he has finallychosen to accompany to Cannes may not rank among his finest, but it offersenough insider wit, with the likes of Peter Bogdanovich, Haley Joel Osment andHarvey Weinstein among those mentioned in hilarious contexts, to send everyoneout into the night smiling. But seeing Allen play a filmmaker on screen will also remind the industry how much it misses his earlier genius as abittersweet observer of the human condition. At one point in HollywoodEnding, during a backyard partyscene, a guest suggests that filmmakers must always consider the audienceotherwise their work is simply masturbation. Allen hits back by saying what helikes most about masturbation is the "cuddling afterwards." Perhapsit's this same self-gratifying side that is now lacking in this and Allen's other more blatantly audience-pleasing recent work - and notnecessarily for the better, critically or commercially.

Prod co: Gravier Productions presents a Perdidoproduction.

US dist: DreamWorks SKG

Int'l sales: Capitol Films (on behalf of VCL)

Prod: Letty Aronson.

Exec prods: Stephen Tenenbaum, Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe

Scr: Woody Allen

DoP: Wedigo von Schultzendorff

Ed: Alisa Lepselter

Prod des: Santo Loquasto

Costume des: Melissa Toth

Main cast: Woody Allen, Tea Leoni, Treat Williams, DebraMessing, Mark Rydell, George Hamilton, Tiffani Thiessen.