Any similarity between the characters and events in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives and persons living or dead is, of course, not entirely coincidental. Still, you have to wait until the end of this cynical ensemble drama to witness the most telling link between Allen’s art and life. Allen has cast himself as Gabe Roth, a middle-aged New York fiction writer and English professor who has watched the passion drain out of his marriage. He and Judy (Mia Farrow), his wife of 10 years, still get along, but they don’t pretend to love each other with any urgency. As a result, Gabe has gone and done what so many men in his situation do. He has formed an attachment to a younger woman.

Rain (Juliette Lewis), a sexy creative writing student with a thing for father figures, idolizes Gabe. The two have become flirtatious friends, and at her 21st-birthday party she makes a move, asking Gabe to kiss her. After the kiss, they’re standing in the kitchen and talking; if romance blooms, it’s going to happen now. Gabe, though, refuses to take the plunge. Instead, he yammers out some sheepish explanation about how it just wouldn’t be a good idea.

His decision is mature, responsible, and plausible. Nevertheless, as he backs off from the attraction that has fueled him through most of the film, it’s hard to shake the feeling — at least, hard for anyone who has felt wired into Woody Allen’s private life during the past few weeks — that Gabe’s action is a kind of sugarcoated cop-out. It’s not that I’m recommending May-December flings. It’s that, whatever one’s moral judgment of it, the real version was so much more…interesting.

In Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen has made a somber, mid-life version of what appears to be a classic Allen comedy of romantic confusion. The movie centers on two middle-aged couples: Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), who announce early on that they’re splitting up, and their old friends Gabe and Judy. Before long, all four characters become involved with other partners. Some of the relationships are comic and superficial. The gruffly affable, bearlike Jack, for instance, starts going out with his aerobics instructor, a chatty bimbo (Lysette Anthony) he’s convinced is changing his life. Meanwhile, the two women take turns dating Michael (Liam Neeson), a handsome editor who falls hard for Sally, even as Judy falls for him. As partners are juggled, the same themes and patterns keep emerging: that passion within marriage is an illusory, fleeting thing; that people often fail to end up with the partners they love most; that erotic fantasy — at least, for men — has almost no connection to intimacy; that you never really know your own best friends.

Husbands and Wives is accomplished and engrossing. In its essential outline, the film stands alongside Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters — those great, funny, sad, achingly romantic comedies that are Allen’s supreme achievement as a director. At the same time, something is slightly off. Whenever the characters open their mouths, what comes out has a morose, exhausting sameness — it’s the post-analytic whine of Allen’s ersatz-Bergman melodramas (Interiors, September, Another Woman).

The daunted, sour outlook represents an older and wiser Woody. To a degree, though, he may be mistaking joylessness for wisdom. The people in Husbands and Wives are so busy explaining themselves, excavating their own fears, desires, and motivations, that there’s hardly a moment when they simply exist. Allen seems to be saying that life boils down to two options: the boring security of marriage or the pleasure of irresponsible sex. But isn’t there any middle ground? If the lifestyle upheavals of the last 20 years have accomplished anything, it has been to expand the possibilities of connection, erotic and otherwise, within marriage. Husbands and Wives isn’t really darker than Manhattan or Hannah; it just leaves out the romantic giddiness and most of the jokes. And it was precisely the blend of tones in those earlier films — the cynicism and romance — that made them so profound and enjoyable. Husbands and Wives feels rigged. The movie is less a drama than a series of overly chewed-on observations.

Still, as Woody’s angst-a-thons go, this one is singularly lively and well acted. Allen pulls a major performance out of veteran director Sydney Pollack. Pollack brings off something very tricky: He highlights the crazed, pent-up vitality in Jack’s mid-life crisis even as he shows you how pathetic and self-deluded the guy is. There’s a wrenching party scene in which Jack explodes with disgust at his new girlfriend. Jack goes too far — we see the tyrant inside the mensch — and it’s shocking to witness his anger breaking through the movie’s controlled surface.

In some ways, Allen’s view of women now seems embarrassingly out of date (did he have to make Jack’s girlfriend an astrology nut?), but he has written sharp, perky roles for Juliette Lewis and the great Judy Davis. As Rain, Lewis, with her throaty voice and puffed-out lips, is like a teenage Bette Davis; she’s a dazzling camera subject, and she gives furtive, ironic twists to her lines. And Judy Davis takes what is by now an Allen archetype — the frazzled neurotic perfectionist — and turns the part into a series of comic epiphanies. Her hypercritical Sally uses ”standards” to keep life at arm’s length. Making love to Michael, she’s so serenely, hilariously detached that she barely seems to exist within her own body.

Allen has dressed up the movie with visual gimmicks. Much of Husbands and Wives was shot with a jittery, hand-held camera, and there are jump cuts within scenes — a self-conscious way of making everything seem raw and real. In a running stunt, the characters make confessional statements to a voice off screen. At first we think they’re talking to their shrinks. Then it becomes clear that they’re speaking to an ”interviewer.” The conceit is naggingly bizarre: Is someone making a documentary about their lives? The true problem with this device, though, is that there’s virtually no contrast between the clinical, self-analytical tone of the interviews and the way the characters talk the rest of the time. Husbands and Wives is a big, spongy ball of therapeutic angst. I hope Woody Allen continues pouring his life into his movies, but next time he’d do well to keep the couch off camera. B

Husbands and Wives
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