FILM / On love and social death: Adam Mars-Jones on the difficult job of making romantic comedy for a modern audience in Anthony Minghella's Mr Wonderful

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When, with a careless strum of the keyboard, Gus (Matt Dillon) loses a vital piece of his ex-wife's academic work on his computer, he tells her to pray to St Anthony for its return - St Anthony finds things. Anthony Minghella, director of Mr Wonderful (12) isn't ready for cinema canonisation just yet, but he does have a great knack for finding truth in played-out situations, walking through the dead heartland of cliche unscathed. In Truly Madly Deeply he found some of the emotional ugliness of grief that Ghost had tactfully airbrushed out (and Juliet Stevenson found the indignity and mucus that has always been missing from screen crying scenes). In his new film, Minghella finds freshness and charm in the situation of an estranged couple who can't quite get free of each other, and will ultimately come together with a positive clang of reconciliation. There can only be one Philadelphia Story, but Mr Wonderful makes a good shot at the difficult assignment of making romantic comedy for a modern audience.

'Assignment' may be the right word, since after the promising statement 'Written and directed by Anthony Minghella' comes the small print: 'From an original screenplay by Amy Schor and Vicki Polon'. It's bound to be tempting to ascribe everything that works in the film to the Minghella touch (brave British director taking on Hollywood production values) and everything that doesn't to the mere Americans, presumptive hacks. It can't be that simple, if only because Minghella must have had his hands tied on what is, in a sense, his second apprentice work, having to show he can turn around a standard genre project before being trusted to do something more personal.

Anyone looking for distinctively British input in a film about native New Yorkers might pick up on the sympathetic treatment of social pain at the edge of the action. When Gus's work-mates, matchmaking for his ex-wife (so that he'll be free of alimony payments and can invest in their dream project), run through a list of eligible men in a crowded lift, a woman standing next to them hears someone described as 'a dope, but he's free'. 'He's not a dope,' she puts in. And then, crossing a boundary before she even knows it's near, she adds: 'And he's not free' - the look in her eyes shows that she's shocked at herself for blurting it out.

Similarly, when a glamorous woman in middle age finds herself, at a charity forfeit game that is part of a fund-raising dinner, having to auction an item of her underwear to the highest bidder (not what's in her underwear drawer at home, mind you, but something she was wearing until a moment ago, still warm from her body), Minghella lets us see the deathly look she wears on her face until her husband outbids the competition and pays the ransom for her dignity.

Conversely, anyone looking for a specifically Minghella weakness would be bound to notice the moment near the end, just before the lovers are reunited in an appropriate setting of darkness and sparks, where Gus looks over to a Down's Syndrome couple near him on a train. When the lights go out for a second or two, they steal a kiss, and the way we are encouraged to smile at their furtive innocence when the lights return is as sweet as patronage gets. But Minghella can't be cleared of a charge that could also be levelled at Truly Madly Deeply, of using disability as decor. Asked what he had learnt from Truly Madly Deeply, Minghella answered that your first film was like the first car you learnt to drive on, so he had nothing to compare it with. Mr Wonderful gives more clues about his particular way of driving a film, nippy, efficient, with a talent for turning big moments into small moments that count for more.

The film starts with Gus in voice- over recounting a recent nightmare of his, in which he was playing a slot machine that gave him electric shocks (he's an electrical engineer) which he tried to unplug, only to find that the cables were connected to his heart. Minghella doesn't illustrate this fantasy, just provides a dreamy helicopter shot of night- time New York, intercut with slow- motion sparks, but the very first image of the film continues to resonate: a New York city manhole cover suspended at an unexpected angle, so it looks like something heroic, a Homeric shield.

If Gus was upper middle class, he'd be telling his nightmares to a shrink. As it is, he's telling this one to his girlfriend, Rita (Mary-Louise Parker), but he is still on the receiving end of some pretty astute interpretation of dreams. Parker gets to deliver the best opening line any character in a film has been given for some time: 'That's an alimony dream.'

Matt Dillon is the most interesting leading actor of the generation once known as the Brat Pack. He has lost the fake Method edge he used to have, the reflex of over-commitment - determination to be a presence at all costs - and can now play towards sympathy, away from it, or at a strange oblique angle where sympathy becomes irrelevant. Annabella Sciorra as his ex- wife Lee is thoroughly charming: in one of their habitual barbed exchanges, she mimes an ironic curtsy, and the fact that she's wearing overalls at the time (she works part-time at the Botanical Gardens) only adds to the seductiveness of the mocking formal gesture.

It's clear from the start that these two quarrelling people are only foreplay waiting to happen. But there is a proper way of structuring the predictable that the film sometimes neglects. Lee is seeing a married man (her English professor, played by William Hurt), but the plot requires that she at least considers other partners, or she would hardly accept the dates Gus and his work-mates set up so clumsily. The script manages this by having her meet her lover's son, physical proof that the adulterous relationship has no future, but the ensuing change in her is still too abrupt and feels contrived. Much more deadly is a scene where the Hurt character can't remember whether he's read her term paper or not, and the two episodes would work better in the other order.

There's a similar miscalculation at the fund-raising dinner, where the estranged couple meet each other's partners for the first time, and jealousy starts driving them back together. Lee is with Dominic (played by Vincent D'Onofrio, big burly body and soft raspy John Malkovitch voice), and this is supposed to be their first date. Yet they happily appear on stage together for their forfeit, singing Aretha's 'Say a Little Prayer' with shy pride, before going back to inhibited small talk. These New York Italians seem to be suffering a sudden spasm of incongruous British awkwardness.

With his next film, perhaps Anthony Minghella will be allowed to resume his crusade to get Bach back on movie soundtracks (as he did so well on Truly Madly Deeply). At one point in Mr Wonderful, William Hurt's character turns up for a date with Lee with some Glenn Gould cassettes in his pocket, but a crisis intervenes and the tapes never hit the deck. At moments of high emotion you can almost hear Minghella begging his assigned composer, Michael Gore, for some baroque passion instead of orchestral schmaltz - and all he gets is orchestral schmaltz with twiddly bits.

Minghella fact file

Name: Anthony Minghella

Age: 39

Born: Ryde, Isle of Wight

Education: Studied theatre history at Hull University and stayed on as an academic.

Occupation: Writer and director.

Plays: 1981 Resigned his teaching job to write a radio play for a pounds 600 commission.

1984 Named Most Promising Writer by the London Theatre Critics.

1986 Same group gave him its prestigious Best New Play award for Made in Bangkok.

1988 Prix Italia for the BBC radio play Hang Up, on the subject of mobile phones.

1989 Giles Cooper award and Sony award for radio excellence for his writing and direction of Cigarettes and Chocolate.

Film: 1991 Bafta award and Writers Guild award for Best Screenplay and Australian film award for Best Foreign Film for his debut feature, Truly Madly Deeply, starring Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson.

1993 Release of Mr Wonderful which he wrote and directed.

Television: Emmy awards for The Storyteller and Living with Dinosaurs (with Jim Henson). TV dramas include What If It's Raining and Inspector Morse.

Minghella on himself: 'I'm not disposed to a misanthropic view of human nature. I tend to think the best of people.'

Minghella on Hollywood: 'We've all heard about them, but it's a very different thing to experience them, to deal with the studios and realise they have absolutely no regard for the material, only for a sense of how they're going to sell it.'

(Photograph omitted)