The life of a dedicated Woody Allen apologist has gotten harder lately, and this is, ironically enough, because he finally came out with a really great film not that long ago. Back in 2002, when the recent examples of "good" Allen were Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown, it was not so very hard to look somebody in the eye, and lie to them without a moment's hesitation, "Hollywood Ending is a good film." But then in 2005, the director went and revitalised himself with his first masterpiece in better than a decade, Match Point, and now that we've all been reminded of what a good Woody Allen film tastes like, it's not so easy to go back to the easy fib, "Of course it's good, Woody Allen directed it!"

Then again, there's the flipside to overappreciating a film because Woody Allen directed it, and that's underappreciating a film because Woody Allen directed it (I remain steadfast in my belief that if anyone else had been behind Scoop, that film would have found a much more generous reception; but because it wasn't as good as his best work, it was ipso facto a bad film). There is every possibility that what I'm about to launch into is just such a criticism - if X < Crimes and Misdemeanors then X = failure. Consider this my full disclosure.

At any rate, Allen's newest film, Cassandra's Dream, does not strike me as a film that is all that particularly good, and I find myself, in these post-Match Point times, too wearied by the film to give my all and pretend that it's somehow a great misunderstood work. Anyway, I have to save up my energy for Vicky Cristina Barcelona this fall. This despite the fact that there may well be a legitimate defense of Cassandra's Dream; it's just not a very convincing one.

The plot: in London, two lower-class brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) find the deal of a lifetime on a boat that they both want very badly. Without knowing where the money will come from, they snap it up and christen her the Cassandra's Dream. Within a few days, Terry makes and loses a great deal of money gambling, Ian gets caught steals from his restaurateur father's safe to make the down payment on a sure-fire real estate deal in Los Angeles, and both men realise that if they don't find some major cash immediately, they are both royally screwed, and at the least will lose the women they love: Terry's fiancée Kate (Sally Hawkins) and Ian's new paramour, actress Angela Stark (Hayley Atwell, a relative neophyte). Hope comes in the form of their incredibly wealthy uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), who is willing and eager to bail them out if they'll do him one little favor: he needs a whistleblower killed.

There's a little Match Point here, and whole lot of Love and Death in the protracted discussions on the morality of committing murder, but it's not a flaw that the film looks to Allen's past work for its themes. In fact, the narrative and thematic arcs of Cassandra's Dream are easily its finest elements, notwithstanding the typically Allen cop-out ending. The problem is how those things are executed by a clutch of disturbingly weak performances stumbling over uncharacteristically terrible dialogue. And there is the rub.

If Match Point could be called Allen's opera, Cassandra's Dream is unambiguously his Greek tragedy, "unambiguously" here referring not just to its laden title, but also to a handful of conversations about the nature and the appeal of Greek plays. At the same time, Match Point used its operatic nature as a means to justify what otherwise might have seemed like flaws: histrionic characters, florid dialogue and a whopper of a contrived third act. Cassandra's Dream doesn't get a similar out; the characters aren't stylised in the fashion of Greek figures, they're just poorly rendered. There are a few reasons for this, all sort of interconnected but essentially separate: first, the script feels unnervingly like a first draft. Many scenes (especially in the first third) simply repeat information found in other scenes, and others are obviously present just so that some gobbet of exposition or foreshadowing can be dropped on the audience. As for the lines given to the's a known fact of Allen's cinema that he tends to write about privileged artistic classes. Cassandra's Dream is focused squarely on poor Londoners, and the twin problems of unfamiliarity with the class and unfamiliarity with the country render the characters adrift, sounding precisely like a well-to-do New Yorker might want poor Londoners to sound. It's not the worst dialogue of his career, but it might be the blandest - trapped between the desire for regional naturalism and characteristically literate Allenspeak, it achieves neither.

The other significant problem is the actors; a tremendous shame, given the talent involved. The women, Hawkins and Atwell, simply fall by the wayside, a victim of the director's occasional gynophobia. The men are the real trainwrecks: Farrell has a notable inability to manage his way around the neurotic paranoia that hits Terry late in the film, whereas McGregor never seems to actually fall in love with Atwell, and given that his character's arc is entirely based on that affair, this is a significant problem. They are not remotely credible as brothers, and neither man comes within swiping distance of a decent accent, although oddly enough their accents never drop out at the same time. I am sad to say that the very worst performance, however, is clearly Tom Wilkinson's: Uncle Howard is in just a few scenes, the sort of role where you'd like to say that an actor as reliable as Wilkinson steals the show in his brief appearance. He kind of does, but only by being a distracting liability: first he seems like he's overdosed on lithium, then he makes up for it by playing the role like a plainclothes clown. The actor has been in too many films for me to be comfortable calling this his worst performance, but I'm even less comfortable thinking that it isn't.

There's this thing, though: Cassandra's Dream is actually really funny. More "funny oh God" than "funny ha ha," but I laughed rather often, certainly more than I did during A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy or Celebrity. I was far from alone in the theater. So the question arises: is Cassandra's Dream a deliberate comedy? Nothing about its texture feels that way, and it would be unlike Woody Allen to make a film this cagey about his humor. He's been a satirist, and his humor has always been exceptionally dry, but this kind of subtle anti-humor has never been in his bag of tricks. Then the next question arises: if the film fails totally on the level Allen made it, but succeeds as an accidental parody of Allenesque pretension and profundity, is it a good film? Yes, I know, intentional fallacy, but if Allen wanted to make a straight-up Sophoclean tragedy, and I have to assume he did, I'm going to hold it against the final product.

Meanwhile, the look of the film is quintessentially Allen: long takes that seem to exist largely to avoid multiple set-ups, vaguely theatrical framing, plenty of zooms and forward dolly shots. He's not the world's most imaginative director, let's be honest, and given his notorious lack of interaction with his actors, I sometimes wonder what he actually does on set. I will mention that his second collaboration with Vilmos Zsigmond proves to be one of the rare Allen films where the cinematography actually possesses value - few directors have been better at neutering some of the world's finest cinematographers, particularly Sven Nykvist. I should also probably mention that the score by Philip Glass is, if I am not mistaken, the first time that music was written for a Woody Allen film. It's a good fit: both the composer and the filmmaker have long since retreated from the invention of their earlier careers to simply repeat their familiar styles in increasingly stale ways.

So anyway, I liked the movie, but I'm not sure if I liked it the right way, and I'm not sure if anyone else would like it. It's just not worth the time, I'm afraid: the themes are interesting enough, but expressed better elsewhere, even in the director's canon, and it seems pretty safe to say that this one is for Woody Allen partisans only; if you're not already a fan, this isn't going to be the film that changes your mind. It appears that Allen's celebrated British revival period has petered out.