MOSCOW - Much like Frank Capra's

It's a Wonderful Life

in American culture, the Soviet film

The Irony of Fate

has a permanent home in Russian hearts - and on TV screens every holiday season.

The 1975 film, directed by Eldar Ryazanov, is a sweet, witty romance that also took a sly shot at homogenization in Soviet life.

After a bender with his buddies, a Moscow doctor named Zhenya sobers up in the Leningrad airport, unaware that he has flown to that city. He takes a taxi through streets exactly like those at home to an apartment block exactly like his, and even opens the door to what he believes is his fourth-floor flat with his key from Moscow.

The oblivious Zhenya falls into bed.

The apartment in fact belongs to an attractive blonde named Nadya, a woman not entirely happy with her puffed-up bureaucrat boyfriend and seeking something truer in life and love. She and Zhenya, the slightly hapless hero, strike up a romance. But the film, which airs every New Year's Eve on Russian TV, ends without revealing the couple's ultimate fate.

Now the suspense is over.

The Irony of Fate: Continuation

opened in Russian theaters Dec. 21.

"For people who were born in the territory of the former Soviet Union,

The Irony of Fate

is not actually a film - it is part of their national memory," Konstantin Ernst, one of the new film's producers, said at a news conference this month.

Retouching a classic is a risky business. And perhaps unsurprisingly, a film whose makers insist is not a sequel has met with derision from Moscow film critics.

"The second

Irony

differs from the first one as much as the rotten, dank weather outside differs from a frosty, fresh December with powdery snow," Yelena Yampolskaya wrote in the newspaper Izvestia.

The bad reviews had no effect on curious moviegoers, who showed up in droves. The box office take was $9 million the first weekend, making the film a blockbuster by Russian standards.

"I liked it because it's so recognizable," Nadezhda Bessonova, 28, a computer specialist, said after seeing the movie. "It's also a humane and kind depiction of our current life."

After the first

Irony

faded to black, the new film informs us, Zhenya and Nadya went their separate ways. Nadya stuck with her bureaucrat boyfriend, married him and had a daughter, also called Nadya. Zhenya married and had a son, Konstantin. Both later divorced.

More than 30 years later, Konstantin ends up blind drunk in the original flat, where the younger Nadya finds him. He is there as part of a convoluted ruse by his father's friends to get Zhenya back into the arms of the woman with whom he shared a magical night. The waylaid son is the bait to get Zhenya back to Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg.

Of course, one romance is rekindled, and another, between the son and daughter, is struck up.

The original lead actors returned for the new film, including the Polish actress Barbara Brylska, whose voice was dubbed in both versions.

Ryazanov, now 80, declined to direct the new

Irony

but read the script in advance and took the same cameo part he played in the original. Yet he has been studiously silent since the movie opened, and declined to comment for this article.

The

Continuation

however unwittingly, is in its own way a reflection of the new Russia, where consumerism is king. The film is chockablock with product placements, particularly for Beeline, a Russian cell-phone operator that is one of the movie's backers.

The sense of dislocation triggered in the original movie by the sameness of Soviet construction is ostensibly re-created in the new film through mishaps with cell phones.

Most critics weren't buying that, either.

"The people who made

The Irony of Fate 2

are sure that everything on Earth can be sold," Yampolskaya wrote. "One more brand appeared in our lives. And one miracle disappeared."