Husbands and Wives is a wonderfully written, powerfully acted piece of cinema, which features two of the best supporting performances seen in a Woody film. While deeply (and painfully) insightful about relationships and human behavior, Husbands and Wives largely avoids the moody, onerous angst of several other Allen titles from this period (such as the laborious Another Woman). Despite its heavy and at times excruciating subject matter, the film remains vibrant and engaging. It’s one of the old Jungle Cat’s very best efforts.
Husbands and Wives begins how you might expect. Two married couples convene in an impossibly bookish apartment. One couple consists of Sally and Jack, who are played beautifully by Judy Davis and the late (and wonderful) Sydney Pollack. A few minutes after arriving, and in a flippant if not crass manner, Sally announces to their long-time friends Gabe and Judy (played by Mia Farrow and Woody) that her and Jack are breaking up after years of marriage and raising a family. Woody’s Gabe and Mia’s Judy are aghast at the news, incredulous as to how a marriage so seemingly stable could suddenly become derailed.
This revelation sets off intriguing shockwaves – with Gabe and Judy suddenly finding themselves reevaluating their own relationship. This gradually exposes the frustrations, compromises, broken dreams, and simmering resentments that are common if not universal qualities found in long-term pairings. All of this is handled strongly by Allen’s sublime script: a brilliant piece of work that deftly unpacks the various psychological layers of these four New Yorkers.
Husbands and Wives is especially intriguing because it chronicles both the effects of divorce and the beginnings of new love. To get at the truth behind these two wildly opposing experiences, Allen films Husbands and Wives as if the story’s proceedings were part of a real documentary. What this implies is that throughout the film the two main couples periodically appear in “talking-head” segments where they answer various questions about love and relationships by an unseen documentary crew.
This stylistic technique certainly helps distinguish the film from much of Allen’s canon. It also bolsters the film’s ability for evoking contrasting perspectives, allowing for Allen to capture the multifaceted ethos of each one of his characters with relative ease. Despite this technique’s storytelling efficacy, however, it occasionally feels like a bit of a gimmick. It also invariably introduces the questions that are asked about any mockumentary format. For example, for as compelling as these two couples are, the idea of a documentary crew investing time and money in chronicling their plight is dubious if not absurd. It’s about as plausible as someone choosing to film the exploits of a small paper company in Scranton for nearly a decade.
Still, this is a minor quibble, as the writing, directing and especially the performances help Husbands and Wives transcend any questionable aesthetic choices. As Sally and Jack, Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack are fantastic. Davis (Academy Award nominated) in particular is really memorable, playing a seething, anxious woman who possesses rip-roaring intelligence, but is perhaps a bit too cerebral for her own good.
The other central couple is also highly capable albeit more uneven. Woody is, as always, playing his trademark character: a highly intelligent, relentlessly sardonic, deeply pessimistic yet hopelessly romantic intellectual. His performance here, while maybe not as memorable as the Annie Hall or Manhattan versions of the character, is still very effective. It helps to provide the film with its meditative weight, and provides some small yet funny moments of comedic relief.
If there is a weakness in the film’s primary cast it is the form of Mia Farrow. It’s not that her performance is bad in the film persay, it simply feels largely similar to the other passive, quietly suffering characters she had already played for Woody throughout the 1980s. Thankfully, her rather uninteresting performance is off-set by the rest of the cast, including early appearances by two actors who are now widely known. Playing a role far removed from his contemporary status as an ass-kicking senior citizen, Liam Neeson appears about half-way through the film as the Irish dreamboat, named simply “Gates.” Additionally, a young Juliette Lewis turns up as a college student and aspiring writer named Rain, who catches the eye of Woody’s Gabe (who is a professor and novelist). Both actors make a strong impression, with Neeson’s sensitive, highly dependent Gates being particularly fascinating. His performance is amazingly different than his recent work as an aging he-man.
Husbands and Wives, while less quotable (and certainly less humorous) than the Woodster’s most famous titles, is absolutely top-tier Allen. Strong throughout, the film ends in an appropriately powerful fashion, with one character participating in a talking-head sequence followed by an immediate and somewhat inconclusive cut to black. The jarring, sad nature of this ending is a testament to the film’s overall absorbing allure. Despite its tough subject matter, you become fully invested in these characters, and in Allen’s complex exploration of what brings people together or tears them apart.