When Husbands and Wives premiered in 1992, there was endless speculation on how much of this Woody Allen film had its roots in the star/filmmaker’s tumultuous off-screen personal life. After all, the themes of infidelity and a much older man’s pursuit of a young girl appeared to mirror Allen’s very public break-up with his real-life and reel-life collaborator Mia Farrow (playing his wife in the film, although the two never married off-screen).
Judged from the safety of retrospective distance, the scandal involving Allen, Farrow and the latter’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn seems stale and trivial when compared to other juicier celebrity scandals. And, whether or not it was meant to be a thinly-veiled autobiography, Husbands and Wives also seems stale and trivial, both in relation to Allen’s wider filmography and on its own merits.
Much of the problem with Husbands and Wives – a tale of two New York couples going through respective marriage breakdowns – is that it is difficult to watch due to a pair of irritating gimmicks: the use of Dogme-style handheld cinematography and cut-away scenes where the characters appear to be interviewed by an off-camera presence regarding what transpired. Perhaps Allen believed that giving the film a quasi-documentary style would provide more credibility – but the stilted dialogue betrays its origins in the typewriter of a filmmaker whose primary flaw has been the chronic inability to invent dialogue where the characters enjoy a diversity of distinctive voices.
It also doesn’t help that Allen created a story full of caricatures rather than characters. His women occupy extreme stereotypes, ranging from the passive-aggressive (Farrow), the intellectual bitch (Judy Davis), the still-innocent youth (Juliette Lewis) and the athletic bimbo (English actress Lysette Anthony). The men are not much better, with the obnoxious jealous husband (film director Sydney Pollack), the sensitive intellectual hunk (Liam Neeson), and Allen playing his on-screen persona of the nervous, somewhat shady, self-pitying intellectual. At the time, Davis enjoyed a wealth of praise and an Oscar nomination for her performance, but today her attempt to emote frigidity and anxiety feels synthetic and her acting ultimately resonates with the crunch of scenery chewing. Allen clearly wrote the sharpest one-liners for Davis rather than for Farrow, who all but fades into the wallpaper her with a no-dimension character that she is unable to inflate into life.
When viewing Husbands and Wives in the course of Allen’s canon, one might excuse its sour comedy on a severe case of burnout – after all, Allen was churning out one film a year since 1982. By that point in his career, his output had become erratic and increasingly ponderous. And, again, perhaps real-life turns of event may have influenced his screen work: following his break-up with Farrow, Allen’s next wave of films began to take on a much frothier personality – at least until his unrelentingly mean-spirited Deconstructing Harry (1996) and Celebrity (1997) provided a reminder of the nastier elements of his storytelling.
Ultimately, Husbands and Wives has gotten lost in the extraordinarily heavy volume of Allen’s films, and it is recalled today primarily as the final Allen-Farrow pairing. Too bad that their parting was such a mean-spirited and dreary belch unworthy of their talents.