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‘Husbands and Wives’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 18, 1992


Woody Allen
Woody Allen;
Mia Farrow;
Judy Davis;
Sydney Pollack;
Juliette Lewis;
Liam Neeson
language and adult situations

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"Husbands and Wives" may always be remembered as the painfully funny prelude to Woody Allen's divorce from reality, a Freudian slip-up in which the rattled filmmaker wrestles with his lost ardor for Mia Farrow. Indeed, there are more parallels between the real and the fictional couples than Zsa Zsa's made trips down the aisle. But there's more here than a peek through a celebrated keyhole -- more of an accomplishment than perhaps we'd care to acknowledge.

Allen, the schlemiel, has humiliated himself and hurt his family, disillusioned his fans and become a case in point for the GOP, but he has also hit upon an issue that is universally applicable, the stuff of Oprah Winfrey shows and the trend punditry of newsmagazines. As Allen's tarty 20-year-old love interest (Juliette Lewis) observes: "Time says you lose your sexual passion for the other person in four years. Time must know. Right?" Time is the enemy when it comes to monogamy -- the tired but true premise of Allen's 12th film with Farrow, one for every year they were together. In this cautionary tale of values, the writer-director-actor does not stand by his longtime squeeze, but he does the right thing. He resists the temptations of Lewis's youthful flesh, he heeds the siren's warning. Of course, this puts him in the pulpit with the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world denouncing adulterers. Another fallen idol, guilty of his own crimes and misdemeanors.

As is his wont, Allen assumes the role of the perplexed innocent, a college writing professor oh so baffled by the forces of his own biology, women who don't pay enough attention to him, the nature of the universe (which he parochially defines as Manhattan). He's a little guy with big questions and a sense of humor the size of the Empire State Building. And he's at his pithiest when he's suffering psychic pain. In retrospect, nobody has made better jokes about the latest installment in Woody's lifelong midlife crisis than Woody. "Why do I hear $50,000 worth of psychotherapy dialing 911?" asks his alter ego Gabe Roth when he's tempted by Lewis, a plum-lipped coed with a thing for older men.

And nobody seems to have better articulated Farrow's terrible anxiety than Woody. The characters portrayed by the former partners are as thinly veiled as a summer bride and their lines are excruciatingly personal. The reality adds resonance to the performance: "Do you ever hide things from me? Feelings? Longings? Complaints?" asks Farrow, so pathetic now in the role of Gabe's frumpy wife, Judy. "Are you still attracted to me? Are you ever attracted to other women?" At first, the audience snickers, but after a while everyone's too uncomfortable to laugh at Judy's awkward questions. It takes two, as any marriage counselor will affirm, and Judy is a whiner who has let herself go. Not that the scrawny-necked, geeky Gabe is any prize. Described as the passive-aggressive type by her former husband (Benno Schmidt), Judy usually gets what she wants, and at the moment she is obsessed with having a child, doubtless thinking that a baby would save the marriage. When the embers flare, albeit weakly, Gabe douses them, telling Judy to put on her diaphragm. (With his shots here of frustrated sperm and surprisingly vulgar dialogue, Woody tells us everything we always wanted to know about his sex life, but were too polite to ask.)

Judy's fawnlike whimpering is countered by her vociferously manic best friend Sally, an aggressive-passive played with formidable glee by Judy Davis. Sally and her bear of a husband, Jack (Sydney Pollack), announce that they are getting a divorce in an opening scene that sets the story in motion. Shot with a hand-held camera by Carlo di Palma, the Roths might be hearing the news on the deck of a hurricane-tossed ocean liner. It's an irksomely intrusive technique that thankfully gives way to more placid lensmanship intercut with documentary-type interviews, tracking the limited emotional growth of the characters.

It turns out that Jack and Sally are kidding themselves about quitting their marriage. They remain jealously involved with each other,

an attachment that fires some of the most hilarious moments in recent film memory. Jack moves in with an astrology-ruled aerobics instructor (Lysette Anthony), leading Gabe to observe that "his IQ has gone into remission." Meanwhile Sally starts seeing a romantic Irishman (Liam Neeson), whose attempts to make love to the cerebral perfectionist go awry when she starts thinking about hedgehogs and foxes. It's a scene as marvelously loony as any Allen ever concocted.

Davis, who previously played a priggish British aristocrat in the adaptation of E.M. Forster's "Where Angels Fear to Tread," amplifies that indignation to hysterical effect here. The standout in this excellent ensemble cast, she tackles the part with the fervor of Marvin Mitchelson trying a palimony suit. Farrow seems all the more fragile set against her vigor, no longer her director's lovingly lighted dream girl. It's almost cruel to compare the wan Farrow with Lewis, who is as sumptuous as she was in her Oscar-nominated role in "Cape Fear."

The good news, legally speaking, is that Lewis is no Lolita, but a consenting adult. She's fully three years older than Allen's last on-screen kiddie love interest -- Mariel Hemingway as a 17-year-old bobby-soxer in "Manhattan." But we can't help but notice that he's still drawn to girls who do homework. Art imitates life -- now if only Woody would get one.

"Husbands and Wives" is rated R for language and adult situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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