Husbands and Wives

by Cynthia Fucks

Does anyone not know what "Husbands and Wives" is about? Is there a person within reach of a newspaper or a television who hasn't heard that Woody Allen plays a college professor who becomes infatuated with his student, and that he and his wife played by Mia Farrow are having trouble after ten years? Does anyone imagine that we owe a debt of gratitude to the gods of TriStar for releasing this movie two weeks early to reap profits from the mass media dish?

I'm guessing that a review like this is irrelevant. The promo process has exceeded itself. And people will see the movie or not, depending on their own carefully considered balances of moral outrage, curiosity, love of Woody Allen, cynicism proved right, or boredom with the whole damn ruckus. Even apart from the noise about Woody and Mia and Soon-Yi, the movie itself is hardly news. _Husbands and Wives_ is probably the snappiest version of the same movie that Allen has been (re)making for the past 17 years, thanks mainly to Judy Davis, who is, in a word, stunning. Filmed in tight New York apartment spaces, _Husbands and Wives_ features lots of close-ups, handheld camera action, and tasteful color schemes. If this sounds familiar, so does the plot, which focuses on two upscale white couples, best friends, as they fall in and out of marriage.

Within the first ten minutes, Jack and Sally (Sidney Pollack - of all people - and Davis) are coolly informing Gabe and Judy (Allen and Farrow) that they are breaking up, pursuing separate lives, all of which has been reasonably discussed with the therapist and is proceeding without rancor. Judy is devastated, Gabe is intrigued: the male-female patterns of Allen movies seem intact. And they continue in this mode: it turns out that Jack is having an affair with his dizzy, astrology-spouting aerobics instructor Pam (Lysette Anthony). She's a retread from earlier films, spruced up as a well-muscled New Age airhead. Essentially she gives Gabe a reason to disparage Jack's lousy life choices and Sally can worry about being a middle-aged woman.

Sally, need it be said, is distraught. In a profound performance, Davis spits out her weary, wounded dialogue so that it sounds sharp and exciting. She is hilarious, shrewd, ironic, vicious, and hurt (all at the same time). At one point she interrupts a date with a nondescript fellow from her office to make a phone call to Jack. She spews out all kinds of foul names, hangs up, and then turns on her date for the evening: "Please don't defend you sex!" This particular scene is rife with comic brilliance. In a disconcerting way, Sally nails the film's action. The rest of the fretting and analyzing that is so common in Allen pictures is increasingly tedious.

There's a potentially interesting collision of the film's apparent self-awareness and its intensive connections with much-publicized recent events. But this collision speaks more cogently to the fallacies of audience expectations than to any notion of "real" or "private" life disclosed on film (despite or beacuse of _Entertainment Weekly_'s play-by-play of the intersections). Full of technical wit and expertise, the film is sophisticated, smart, and occasionally trenchant. It's structured as a faux documentary (one with no apparent purpose) with an unseen male narrator who updates us on passing time or asks a seated interviewee some probing questions about his or her emotional "issues."

This gimmick might grant the movie a kind of mediated grace if such self-consciousness were an insight or end in itself. But it's not. And the film begins to feel too precious, even smug. Consider this joke that gets away: Jack and Pam go to a party; she talks loudly about astrology and embarrasses him. When he literally carries her to his car, she erupts in frustrated screams. Then he arrives at Sally's house, where she is in bed with Michael (Liam Neeson), begging her to try again. As they rage at each other, a knock comes at the door. Turns out that Jack has left Pam in the car: she explodes through the front door. And the film never recovers from this thoughtless treatment of her.

On top of this kind of easy-targeting, Farrow looks rather stricken. And that's hard to watch. Juliette Lewis, as the student Gabe lusts after, seems gifted with a kind of wisdom. Rain (named after Rilke by her doting parents) recognizes in Gabe's novel-in-manuscript what she calls a "retro" attitude toward women. He's appalled but then later gets her back: he decides not to take her up on her lusty request for an affair, issued on her birthday, in her parents' kitchen, during a massive thunderstorm. Rain might seem to short-circuit past and potential critics of Allen's "problems with women." That is, she's a sign of his intellectual conscience and of Gabe's moral agonizing and correct decision. She's too smart for Gabe, really, with a line of father-figure lovers in her past. She's also too cute and too self-serving, a plot turn that only makes the movie seem more retro.

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