Husbands and Wives

By Desson Howe

September 18, 1992

The news is not that Woody Allen loves his 21-year-old quasi-ward. It's that, just before Hurricane Tabloid tore the roof off his life, he was working on his most enjoyable movie in years.

With its relationship angst and Lolita temptations, "Husbands and Wives" hits embarrassingly close to Allen's home. But it also hits its comic target. You may go to the movie for titillation. You'll remember it for more.

"Wives" also shows Allen shaking himself free from the Chekhov-worshiping, Bergman-adulative straitjacket he's composed in for 10 years. In this movie, featuring himself, his now-estranged real-life partner Mia Farrow, Judy Davis, Sydney Pollack, Liam Neeson and Juliette Lewis, he's footloose and looking for trouble again. It's about time.

Judy Davis is the movie's comic sensation. A non-mincing font of cynicism, she owns every scene she's in. It is she and husband Pollack who set the movie in motion with news of their separation. Their friends, college professor Allen and wife Farrow, are flabbergasted. When Pollack reveals his love for young, nubile aerobics instructor Lysette Anthony, he's not the only one with new plans. Suddenly everyone discovers -- or acknowledges -- the problems in their own relationships; goodhearted, available Neeson and creative-writing student Lewis are added to the sexual mix.

The movie has its share of titter-potential ironies. "Do you ever hide things from me?" Farrow asks Allen, after the Pollack-Davis announcement. "You think we'd ever break up?" she demands later.

There are even more such zingers when Allen becomes attracted to his student, Lewis. But they don't drag the movie down to permanent, campy distraction. There are too many amusing (and depressing) head-to-head encounters among the principals to overindulge in fanzine guffaws. However, it should be pointed out, Farrow doesn't come off quite as well as she used to. As for Allen, he comes out smelling like a relative rose.

"It's like your IQ is suddenly in remission," an appalled Allen tells Pollack over the latter's desire for young partner Anthony.

The Allenesque themes are still there, with familiar references to death, fear, guilt and so forth. A few of his worn-out pretensions stick around too, including those arty, white-on-black credits. But they're part of a greater, new experimentation -- or better yet, an old experimentation. The spirit of "the earlier, funny films" (as Allen once jokingly referred to his older work) seems to have returned. Something's alive and kicking in his work -- at least, for now.

At times, director of photography Carlo di Ponti's hand-held camera suggests those vertiginously obnoxious "state-of-the-art" TV commercials. Allen also imposes a documentary-like structure, in which the principals justify their personal lives to an unidentified, offscreen interviewer. But those talking-head confessionals make for very amusing revelations. You haven't lived until you've heard Davis expound on hedgehog people versus fox people.

For the first time in ages, it seems, there's something in an Allen movie to take home with you. I'm convinced, for instance, my wife will eventually leave me for Liam Neeson.

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