There are a lot of inside-the-biz jokes in Hollywood Ending, but, like last year's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, the new Woody Allen comedy is essentially one long, belabored gag. In Jade Scorpion, the main engine was the notion of an insurance investigator trying to solve the very robberies he's unknowingly committed while in a hypnotic state. Here, Allen is once again at the mercy of his own brain, as a veteran film director whose comeback is jeopardized when he develops psychosomatic blindness. Whatever these throwaway movies may say about Allen's own state of mind these days, they're certainly not the work of a filmmaker at the height of his proven powers.

Hollywood Ending starts off very promisingly, as studio exec Ellie (Ta Leoni) champions her ex-husband Val Waxman (Allen) for a major film directing assignment. Complicating matters is the fact that Ellie left Val for Hal (Treat Williams), the head of the studio that now wants to hire him. As Val, a two-time Oscar winner who's been reduced to directing a commercial in zero-degree weather in Canada, admits, "I would kill for this job, but the people I want to kill are offering me the job."

Val ultimately swallows his pride and accepts a deal (including "a tenth of a point after quadruple breakeven"), but he has a few demands of his own--a Chinese cinematographer who speaks no English (like Allen's own recent collaborator, Zhao Fei), and a part for his eager but untalented girlfriend Lori (Debra Messing of "Will & Grace"). Then, just before shooting begins, the unimaginable happens: Val suddenly goes blind. Egged on by his unflappable agent (Mark Rydell), Val continues to report to work, using his cinematographer's young translator as his confidant and go-between. So his working methods are a little unconventional--surely this award-winning veteran knows what he's doing, right?

Unfortunately, once Val loses his sight, the movie loses its footing. The joke about the blind director quickly becomes tiresome, and Allen doesn't seem to have many other ideas on his mind. Some of the gags smack of desperation (i.e., a lifetime achievement award for Haley Joel Osment), while others are amusing but far too inside for a general audience. (At one point, American Movie Classics host Bob Dorian, as a studio exec, pops his head in to ask, "Can a hyphenate marry a below-the-line person?") Luckily, there's a very funny payoff tied into Allen's European following, but it's a long wait for a good punchline.

Once again, Allen has cast several attractive younger women (Leoni, Messing and Tiffani Thiessen) who have absolutely no problem with the vast age gap with their leading man: Talk about auteur power! Leoni manages to be vivacious in an often-thankless role, while Messing departs from her TV persona with her broad performance as a na™ve but ambitious bimbo. Director Rydell is a standout as Allen's relentlessly cheerful agent.

For now, the best Hollywood ending we could suggest is Woody Allen's return to the gratifying form of Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters.

--Kevin Lally