Husbands and Wives stands to be Woody Allen's biggest hit, thanks to the supposed parallels between this movie and the much- publicized real-life affair between Woody and Mia Farrow's adopted daughter. TriStar Pictures is cashing in on the controversy by promoting this movie a lot more than they would normally advertise Woody's pictures, and they're giving it a much wider release than usual. As a result, many people are going to see a Woody Allen movie for the first time--they may have heard of Annie Hall and Sleeper and Crimes and Misdemeanors, and they may know that Woody refuses to take part in the Academy Awards process and he plays the clarinet every year instead of going to the ceremony, but that's all they know about him. And now they're going to see Husbands and Wives, out of curiosity more than anything else.
I think people will find themselves forgetting about Woody Allen and Mia Farrow when they watch that movie, because they'll be too busy enjoying the drama unfolding on the screen before them. This may be one of Woody's best films--it gives us some of the most deeply developed, interesting characters in his films so far, full of the nuances and the failures that make them ordinary human beings like you and me. While the characteristic Woody Allen angst and philosophy of life is there, the movie doesn't wallow in it--rather, it's used to flesh out the story and make us believe it all the more. The principal characters in this story aren't even Woody and Mia, even though they're given the obvious top billing. This is really the story of Jack and Sally, played by Sidney Pollack and Judy Davis. They're the best friends of Gabe and Judy (Woody and Mia), and the movie begins with them marching into Gabe's apartment and casually announcing that they're splitting up.
Gabe and Judy can't believe this, because they've been friends with these two for all of their lives, and it comes as a complete shock. Well, maybe not that much of a shock--for as the movie progresses, we see how Jack and Sally essentially became fed-up with each other over the year. It's always the little things that build up over time--the subtle criticisms of each other, the white lies that grow into bigger lies--and finally these two decide that they want to try living on their own for a while.
Meanwhile, Gabe and Judy are going through their own mid-life crisis. Here's where the movie ventures into territory first charted in Annie Hall and Manhattan, but this isn't just a retread of those movies. It could easily tell those stories over again, but in fact it's just a backdrop to the story of Jack and Sally. Woody Allen's eternal pessimistic has been fleshed out so well over the years that we're not really watching his betrayal of his wife (as he slowly falls for 19-year-old Juliette Lewis) as we're seeing an old friend tell a favorite story one more time. It's a favorite story because we know how it's going to end, and it's not really happening to us. This has always been Woody Allen's appeal: he's the Charlie Brown of the movies. He takes all of our own fears and anxieties and plays them out for us, making us laugh so that we don't share his depression as we're feeling sorry for him. And the romance between Gabe (Woody) and little Rain (Juliette Lewis)? It's interesting in that it's a part of the archetypal Woody Allen story, though Rain could just as easily be a 45-year-old woman instead of a 19-year-old college student. Lewis' character is very mature for her age, as she suffered from a few traumatic relationships of her own when she was younger. The movie's funniest moment comes when Rain is telling Gabe about her previous affairs, while Gabe just sits there with a classic Woody Allen look on his face. It's a delight.
Aside from the "romantic" angle of Gabe's affair with Rain, I suspect that much of the uneasy feeling that this is real life we're seeing here comes from the way the movie is shot. Hand-held cameras are often used, giving us the feeling that we're right there with the characters on the screen, looking over their shoulders and interacting with them instead of merely watching them from our seats in the theatre. It's a way of breaking the "fourth wall" of the movies, breaking down the barrier between fiction and reality, and this adds to the movie's entrancing effect.
Furthermore, the film is structured in a quasi-documentary style, in which the characters are "interviewed" in Annie Hall fashion; there's even narration by the unseen interviewer as he probes into their pasts and coaxes their deepest secrets from them. In fact, the interviewer is us--he's asking the questions that we want to ask, and he's the one poking into their private lives with his camera. (The film's editing adds to this effect, as it occasionally jumps from one moment to the next in the style of home movies.)
If you go to see Husbands and Wives expecting a detailed look into Woody Allen's real-life affair, then you will probably be disappointed. But don't let this stop you from seeing this film: as a slice-of-life, realistic look into the lives of a quartet of New York characters, this is one of Woody's best.