Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
And then there was one! With this release of 1992ís Husbands and Wives, there remains only one film directed by Woody Allen not available on DVD: his first directorial affair, 1966ís Whatís Up, Tiger Lily? (Allen did one segment of 1989ís anthology New York Stories as well, and it also hasnít appeared on DVD, but I leave it out of the equation; I only considered Allenís full-length productions.) If and when that one will make it onto shelves, I canít say, but Iím happy to finally round out Allenís other flicks with Wives.
Not that I can say I really looked forward to it. Iíve now seen every Allen film other than Lily, and Iíve felt they offered a mixed bag. Most of his genuinely bad material appeared in the Nineties, and since thatís the era from which Wives came, I had my doubts about it.
To my surprise, I actually found Wives to provide one of Allenís better flicks of the era. Perhaps thatís because with Wives he avoided his usual attempts at pretentiousness and seemed to aim his camera at himself. I donít know how much of Wives came from Allenís own life - maybe none of it - but much of the movie appeared to connect with his situation at the time.
At the very start of Wives, long-time married couple Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) tell their friends Gabe (Allen) and Judy Roth (Mia Farrow) that theyíre splitting. This shocks the Roths, and essentially, the movie follows the shockwaves and various personal revelations. Writer/teacher Gabe develops a potentially romantic relationship with a bright student named Rain (Juliette Lewis). Jack quickly shacks up with sexy aerobics instructor Sam (Lysette Anthony) despite the fact sheís decades younger and not exactly MENSA material.
As for the women, their fates intertwine as Judy tries to help Sally re-enter the dating scene. Sally doesnít seem happy about this. Her first attempt goes hilariously awry as she remains seriously irate at Jack and uses her dateís phone to scream at her ex. However, matters improve when Judy introduces Sally to her co-worker Michael (Liam Neeson). Though the two seem to have little in common - heís a pretty easy-going guy, while Sally canít resist incessant criticism - Michael falls for her, and the two develop a relationship.
Allís well and all that, right? Unfortunately, no, for it seems patently obvious that Judy maintains a serious crush on Michael herself. Since her relationship with Gabe appears to be on the rocks - she wants a kid and he doesnít, among other issues - her interest in Michael exacerbates the situation.
For better or for worse, all these situations work themselves out by the end of the movie, though to his credit, Allen avoids a neat and tidy conclusion. Though the DVDís case touts Wives as a comedy, I think thatís a very misleading statement. Yes, the film includes some funny material; among other elements, Sallyís nastiness can be quite amusing. But the overall emphasis remains on the dramatic. The film doesnít feature the heavy tone seen in efforts like Crimes and Misdemeanors - thereís definitely a lighter attitude at work - but the comic elements stay in the background.
Actually, Allen conducts Wives as though it were a documentary. During the opening scene, this appears via some extremely awkward hand-held camerawork; happily, the image stabilized after that, or else Iíd have gotten motion sickness. Other documentary-style techniques abound, such as interviews with the characters conducted by an off-screen personality as well as some narration. Allen doesnít take this style to its fullest conclusion, however, so the documentary theme seems somewhat confusing; some scenes use it while others appear to skip it for no logical reason.
No matter. While the concept could have been gimmicky - like the annoying and cutesy Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite - it actually fit neatly within the framework of Wives. Frankly, after the jarring camerawork of the opening segment, I largely forgot about it; the methods didnít seem intrusive or awkward for the rest of the film.
Wives represented the last of the 13 films Farrow and Allen made together, and it seems to be the one that most strongly reflects their real-life relationship. Not long after this, the Soon-Yi hit the fan; the couple split when Allen developed a romantic relationship with his wifeís adopted daughter. (Soon-Yi was never related to Allen, but the creepy factor appeared high nonetheless.)
Wives seems like a fitting swansong for Farrow and Allenís relationships, both cinematic and personal. The scenes in which Gabe and Judy discuss the end of their marriage comes across as especially powerful given the real-life connection; itís hard to know how much acting actually occurs. While the scene would work in any case, this element makes it all the more effective.
While Allen attempted many other character dramas prior to Wives, it seems like one of the more effortlessly convincing of the bunch. Perhaps thatís because of his personal travails and emotions, but whatever the case, Wives appears to represent real personalities and feelings, unlike many of his other flicks. They often came across as stilted and forced, but Wives avoids those pitfalls.
Husbands and Wives isnít the best Woody Allen flick of the Nineties, as comedic affairs like Bullets Over Broadway and Sweet and Lowdown were more consistenrly engaging and successful. Nonetheless, Wives nicely blended biting humor with realistic personalities and situations to form one of Allenís tightest and most effective dramas.