The press has been suggesting that more filmgoers will see Woody Allen's new film, Husbands and Wives, than any of his recent films. If that's true, it's a pity, because few of them are likely to come back for a second helping. Husbands and Wives is definitely not one of Allen's stronger efforts, though certainly he's done worse.
The film concerns two couples who are going through trying times in their marriages. One couple is (predictably) played by Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. The other, less predictably, is played by Sidney Pollack (better known as a director than actor) and Judy Davis, a fine Australian actress not terribly familiar to the typical American filmgoer. At the outset of the film, Pollack and Davis announce they are splitting up, after 25 years of marriage. Their breakup has traumatic effects on Allen and Farrow's marriage, as does the fact that both Allen and Farrow begin to find themselves attracted to other people.
This scenario should bring to mind certain other films Allen has done - Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, perhaps Interiors and September. It does share some characteristics with those films, in that Allen builds the film out of seemingly random incidents in the characters' lives. Some of the incidents are momentous moments in the characters' lives, some are everyday and serve to contrast the characters' normal lives to their more stressful moments. But Husbands and Wives has a different structure than Allen's earlier films. It's built like a pseudo-documentary. In some scenes, the characters are being interviewed by an off-screen voice, talking directly to the camera. Allen's cinematographer, Carlo DiPalma, uses a handheld camera that visibly shakes and wobbles throughout the film. Allen uses other stylistic touches borrowed from the world of the documentary, as well.
Clearly, Allen had a particular effect in mind, since this isn't the way he ordinarily shoots his films. The whole approach of Husbands and Wives is somewhat sociological, as if Allen wanted us to accept the film as a case study of certain marital behaviors, rather than as a story. In addition, the photographic techniques he uses clearly attempt to make the viewer a participant in the film, by never permitting him to forget that there is a camera there. So criticism of the style of Husbands and Wives should be based on a failure of execution or conception, rather than incompetence or lack of purpose.
In some ways, just as Interiors was Allen's Bergman movie, and Stardust Memories was his Fellini movie, Husbands and Wives is his Cassavettes movie. But, just as Interiors was bargain basement Bergman, and Stardust Memories was faux Fellini, Husbands and Wives is clunky Cassavettes. Allen isn't Cassavettes, just as he isn't Bergman or Fellini, and he has too strong a personal style to merely copy them. Unfortunately, his personal style clashes with his model in each of these films, to the detriment of the finished product.
In particular, Husbands and Wives suffers from problems in the script, in the acting, and in the cinematography. Cassavettes tended to focus on people who were in the working class, or the middle classes. Allen, as usual, focuses on New York intelligencia. Cassavettes-style grit and realism do not work nearly as well within that milieu. Allen's script also fails in the characterization. The primary couple are just plain dull, and their problems and concerns are hard to sympathize with. The secondary couple are better drawn, but are also on the screen less.
The problems with the central characters is exacerbated by the performers. Woody Allen himself is an actor of limited range, the John Wayne of New York urban angst. In more challenging roles, his limitations begin to show themselves, and the part he's given himself in Husbands and Wives is beyond his range. He lacks the ability to show us any depths to the character he is playing. We can accept that he is the person he is stated to be, but we cannot see anything beneath that character's surface. Since opacity is not part of the character's conception, Allen's performance is a failure. Mia Farrow does little better with her role, falling back on her rather wan acting habits, rather than creating a character.
The two secondary players are much better. Sidney Pollack, a fine director whose acting has previously been limited to small parts, shows tremendous talent in the rather cliched part of an aging husband who leaves his wife for a young blond airhead. Pollack's vitality suggests that there is much more to the character than the cliche. He tends to take over every scene he is in, especially those with Allen. Of course, his is a showier part, but he outacts Allen even in smaller things. For instance, we see both characters in their workplaces. Pollack looks at home behind his desk, while Allen's professor looks like he's never stood up in front of a class in his life. (Of course, I knew professors like that, too . . .)
Judy Davis is probably the most talented performer of the leads, and she does very well with a somewhat thankless part. Her Australian accent seems completely replaced with a New York one, she looks perfectly at home in the city, and she establishes a rapport with Pollack that makes the fiction of their characters' lengthy marriage seem true. But her performance and Pollack's are not enough, especially given the amount of time they aren't on the screen.
The only other major characters are the other partners in the principal couples' lives. Liam Neeson and Juliette Lewis have the largest of these parts. They're fine, but the script doesn't allow them much opportunity to be anything but wish-fulfillment figures. They lack reality.
The cinematography doesn't help the film. As mentioned earlier, DiPalma uses a handheld camera throughout, so the frame is perpetually jiggling. DiPalma further emulates the documentary style with semi-controlled zooms into performers' faces, bringing them closer than normal Hollywood photography does and chopping off the top and bottom of their faces; and by jogging around with the camera when characters move, rather than cutting to a new angle that frames them better. These techniques are annoying, but might have worked if Allen and DiPalma had not undercut them with a lighting style that doesn't match them at all. DiPalma uses the same rich, golden lighting used in most of Allen's later films (and by most American films shot by European cinematographers, for that matter), sort of the Dutch masters school of lighting. The studied, careful lighting simply doesn't match with the pseudo-casual handheld framing and camera movement.
Allen is too good a director to produce a complete bust, and Husbands and Wives is by no means Allen's worst film. It has some energy (unlike Interiors), a few funny lines and situations (unlike Another Woman), and some interesting scenes (unlike September). These virtues are enough to make Husbands and Wives worthwhile for Allen fans, but not nearly enough to convert those who do not know or like his films.
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