Classic Woody Allen paints a bitter portrait of marriage

September 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Husbands and Wives" is Woody Allen's view of marriage -- through a glass of Alka-Seltzer, darkly.

The movie is like a radiation trace of a disintegrating relationship; the wash of fiction is that thin and the slather of hostility that thick. Yet this is probably Allen's best movie since "Hannah and Her Sisters," a mature and sobering piece of work that is not only superb in its evocations, quite funny but also troublingly honest about its own biases.

Allen really doesn't like women very much. Each woman is either stupid, flighty, high-strung or (the worst charge) "passive-aggressive."

As for the boys, mostly they're hopeless puppies; their lust and yearning, their unassailably romantic natures make them prime victims of the enemy gender, who pull them this way and that by the rings in their noses. It argues that the world's true victims are prosperous, middle-aged cosmopolitan white guys. The movie could have been called "The Rape of the Sabine Men."

But you don't have to buy that proposition to be engaged by the "Husband and Wives"; Allen gets you into it on the sheer brio of technique. Though it isn't formally acknowledged, the movie is a mock-documentary, a fiction cleverly disguised as cinema verite. The hand-held camera wanders around the fracas, itself slightly neurotic as it flits from antagonist to antagonist, unsure and probing, almost a metaphor for the unsettledness of modern urban life. Now and then the narrative simply stops happening and an offscreen authority figure asks probing questions about the state of the relationships and the interviewees struggle glumly to hammer their emotional nuances into some semblance of language, usually failing.

The setting, as usual, is upscale intellectual Manhattan, a West side populated by ironic, wounded men and smart, predatory women. One evening two couples get together for drinks and dinner: Gabe and Judy (Woody and Mia Farrow) and Jack and Sally (Sidney Pollack and Judy Davis). In a very comfy Manhattan kind of way, Jack and Sally announce that they are going to have a "friendly" separation, and they hope their friends won't make a big deal about it. They, after all, have learned to deal with it and are quite optimistic about the next step.

Of course the true subject of "Husbands and Wives" is delusion: Just as Jack and Sally think they can separate amicably, so do Gabe and Judy think they themselves are happy. The next 18 months proceed to rip the facade off each of these smug assumptions.

Allen is capable of great ugliness. His portrait of Judy is particularly cruel, and it's a little shocking that poor Farrow collaborated so willingly in her own deconstruction. But Judy is the passive-aggressive one, who somehow, while appearing naive and childlike, actually has a will of steel and not a shred of shame in her body. Maneuvering a colleague (Liam Neeson) into a date with Sally, she herself falls for him, while losing interest in Gabe; thus she begins a long and subtle campaign to rearrange a whole series of generally settled lives in service to her own wants.

As for Gabe, he is currently under the enchantment of a young student played by Juliette Lewis. He's supposedly a novelist and professor of writing at Columbia. Anyone who wants is free to draw parallels to Soon-Yi; as the late Bill Dana said, it's not my job. But Allen isn't really kind to her, either; she's clearly a young woman with a dark and troubling thing for attracting older men, leading them on, then losing interest after ruining their lives. Of course Gabe's nobility saves him from such a fate. That Gabe: He is just too darn noble!

Pollack, the famous director ("Out of Africa" among a host of others), brings astonishing energy and vulnerability to his role of a successful but not terribly bright man overmatched to a perfectionist wife, hungry for a little sex and maybe a game of Monopoly. Sally is another acidly etched portrait of woman as lioness -- hear her roar. Sally is sexually repressed, intellectual without being really intelligent, a hopelessly rigid perfectionist who continually "corrects" every little thing. Davis, an Australian, brings off this wretched woman with an astonishing accuracy and humor; she even makes you feel a little sorry for Sally.

In all, Allen's portrait of marriage is clearly dyspeptic. This is the institution of matrimony as viewed by a man who's suffered heartburn his whole life. He could either make a movie or buy some Tums; he made the movie -- screeching, clever, hysterical, endlessly fascinating, cruel as a czar's dream. It's a work of art and a work of ugliness at the same time, a masterpiece of bitterness.

'Husbands and Wives'

Starring Woody Allen and Mia Farrow.

Directed by Woody Allen.

Released by Tri-Star.

Rated PG-13.

*** 1/2

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