Woody Allen's latest film, Hollywood Ending, is a major improvement over his last effort, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. But it's still lesser Allen. It has some great slapstick moments (many of them featured in the trailer), an inspired Jekyll-and-Hyde conversation between Allen's director character and his ex-wife, played by Tea Leoni, and a very funny performance by director Mark Rydell as Allen's relentlessly upbeat agent. But the essential Woody Allen character is by now so familiar that much of its comic potential is used up. The character now works best when it's peripheral (as in Crimes and Misdemeanors) or varied in some unusual fashion (e.g., Deconstructing Harry). Hollywood Ending puts it front and center, and there's nothing we haven't seen before. Allen plays a formerly revered director who can no longer get work because he's both a difficult perfectionist and prone to psychosomatic illness. Leoni, his ex-wife now engaged to a studio exec (Treat Williams doing a similar turn to his portrayal of Mike Ovitz a few years back on HBO) gets him a shot at a high-profile $60-million picture, but as soon as production begins, he suffers an attack of hysterical blindness and has to fake his way through the shoot. Especially for film fans, there are enough inside references and jokes about Hollywood to keep things interesting, but the satire is fairly benign. Albert Brooks did a much more savage hatchet job on contemporary studios in The Muse and David Mamet had a funnier take on production hassles in State and Main. Allen once again surrounds his character with women he's far too old for. Having been divorced by Leoni, he now lives with Debra Messing, whose character is just dumb enough to think that hooking up with a has-been director is a good career move. Tiffany Thiessen is part of the fictional picture's cast, and she puts the moves on Allen because (a) that's what her character does with her directors, and (b) that's what Woody Allen does with his actresses. Isaac Mizrahi has a funny and too-brief cameo as a production designer, and the great Marian Seldes shows up for one hysterical scene as the costume designer. George Hamilton plays an empty suit, and the casting is perfect. The film does have a great ending, though, and it's one that truly lives up to the title. That, and enough laughs along the way, make for a pleasant afternoon or evening at the theater and a qualified recommendation. M.