In what remains his masterpiece — Manhattan — Woody Allen says, “New York was his town and it always would be.” It’s nicely apt, then, to find that Allen’s latest offering may be called Hollywood Ending, but stars Allen in the role of a filmmaker who never sets foot in Tinsel Town for the entire movie (even if the credits are backed by Bing Crosby singing, “Going Hollywood”). In fact, most everything about the film is similarly apt, and it’s far and away Allen’s most successfully realized film since Everyone Says I Love You . Certainly, it’s an improvement over the slightly off-key, but oddly appealing, Curse of the Jade Scorpion. However, it just misses being in the pantheon of Allen’s great works. And it’s not easy pinpointing exactly why. It has a solid comedic premise. What better concept could there be than Woody Allen as a has-been filmmaker given one last shot at recapturing his greatness only to fall prey to his hypochondria (the man has previously “contracted” everything from bubonic plague to elm tree blight) and be struck psychosomatically blind? Better yet, expanding on the idea, to have him actually make the movie in this condition is inspired. Moreover, Allen came up with a masterstroke in casting himself opposite Tea Leoni. Despite the fact that Leoni is even younger than Helen Hunt, who starred with Allen in Jade Scorpion, the age difference is less jarring. In part, this is probably because the pair are given a believable history — not to mention the fact that a 38-year-old woman in love with a 66-year-old movie director seems more plausible than a younger woman falls for a down-at-the-heels insurance investigator. But it’s mostly the fact that Leoni has the requisite intelligence and sophistication to make her possibly the best screen match Allen has had since Diane Keaton. Beyond this, the dialogue is bright and clever (it’s hard not to love a film in which Haley Joel Osment receives a “lifetime achievement award”). The film’s observations are also frequently penetrating, while the situation — though clearly not autobiographical for Allen — is relevant to the plight of any number of big-name filmmakers from the ’70s or ’80s and thereby possesses a keen subtextual resonance. By all rights, Hollywood Ending ought to be a major work, and it just isn’t. The film’s opening scenes — in fact, its entire first third — represent Allen at his best. There’s a drive and a verve here that has often been lacking in his more recent films. Some of the movie’s best moments here are merely sketched in with admirable economy. A phone conversation between Allen on a location shoot for a deodorant commercial in Canada and his live-in actress, wanna-be girlfriend (Debra Messing) is a gem of comic filmmaking that gets right to the point, wastes nothing, exaggerates just enough and allows Allen a wonderful neurotic digression about the potential perils of moose. The film is brimming with such moments. What seems to go wrong lies in the fact that Allen has created a wonderful set-up and then loses his inspiration. As a result, the film is better and funnier before his character is struck blind. At that point, the proceedings keep threatening to turn into a one-joke affair — and just barely miss this pitfall. There’s an unusual sloppiness to some of the structure. For example, Allen spends a good deal of time setting up a variation on the classic concept of a character trying to remember too much information and mangling it to the point of disaster — an idea used to good effect in Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals, Bob Hope’s Never Say Die, Hope’s The Paleface and most famously in Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester with its “chalice with the palace” routine. The problem is, Allen sets it up and then doesn’t follow-through, so there’s no payoff. Why? The economical approach of things such as the telephone conversation also ultimately becomes a problem. In the latter portions of the movie, Allen takes this way too far and ends up making a cinematically indifferent film — almost as if he has forgotten how to be a filmmaker. Ultimately, this becomes almost maddening — and then Allen will turn around and hit us point blank with the kind of wit and creativity that reminds us he’s still the best comic filmmaker working today. And that’s the bottom line. It may be uneven, it may be less than it should be. But the worst that can be said of Hollywood Ending is that it’s the flawed work of a master — and a flawed work of a master is still worth a lot more than the mere competence of a lesser filmmaker.