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The laughs still on us

'Hollywood Ending' is better than a poke in the eye

OK, let's get the important stuff out of the way first. Yes, TŽa Leoni, the female lead in Woody Allen's new comedy, 'Hollywood Ending,' is around half his age.

Debra Messing, as Allen's girlfriend, is a bit younger than Leoni. And Tiffani Thiessen, as an actress who makes a pass at Allen, is younger still.

Let's see, is there anything else? Oh, yeah, might as well mention the movie, since we're here.

These days, you read a review of a Woody Allen movie and you might as well be reading the sports page. It's like a box score, nothing but numbers: how old Allen is, how old his female co-stars are and then maybe something about the movie if there's enough space.

But what else would anyone want to know? Well, it's a comedy, so how about whether it's funny? Yes, it is. It's still in the minor key the Wood-man has favored lately, but it's airy, silly and affectionate.

He plays Val Waxman, a once-hot filmmaker whose career has cooled to the degree that he's now shooting commercials in the Great White North Ñ and getting fired. Just when things are looking really bleak Ñ he's lost a TV movie to Peter Bogdanovich (ouch) Ñ he gets an offer to do a big Hollywood movie.

The offer comes from his ex-wife, Ellie (Leoni), now a producer about to marry studio head Hal (Treat Williams), who thinks the whole thing is a bad risk. Val has a reputation as a temperamental genius whose pursuit of art over commerce, not to mention his catalog of neuroses, looks like bad news for the bottom line.

Still, Val is willing to toe that line for a chance at a New York story he thinks could have been written for him.

'I would kill to do this picture,' he says. 'But the people I want to kill are the ones who want to hire me.'

How was Val to know he'd go blind just as shooting started? He probably should have, since at one time or another he's imagined himself suffering everything from a brain tumor to hoof-and-mouth disease. But this time, psychosomatic or not, he can't see a thing.

How can he direct a movie when he can't see? 'Hey,' offers his enthusiastic and optimistic agent, Al (director and sometime actor Mark Rydell). 'Have you seen some of the movies out there?'

If you see this one, you'll see Allen back in full nebbishy form after playing a wisecracking 1940s insurance investigator who becomes the more familiar Woody when he's hypnotized in last year's 'The Curse of the Jade Scorpion' and a mini-Ralph Kramden in 'Small Time Crooks.'

Audiences probably will take to this good-humored skewering of the movie business more than they did Allen's take on fame in 1980's 'Stardust Memories,' though that film is ultimately funnier.

In keeping with its title, 'Hollywood Ending' is more audience-friendly. The jokes are plentiful, including some of the casting, such as George Hamilton Ñ whose mere presence is a laugh Ñ as an executive whose job seems to be to stand around and be tan.

Even if this film pales in comparison to his greatest work, take it from Al: Have you seen some of the other movies out there?