Woody Allen's comedy Husbands and Wives is set in his familiar New York world of verbal, neurotic achievers, but there's something new in it, a rawness we haven't seen before. It makes you laugh, deeply, and it makes you squirm. Part of the discomfort is intentional, for the movie is designed to cut close to the bone. But now, of course, we squirm for other reasons. Unless you've been lost in the rain forest for the last month, you won't be able to watch "Husbands and Wives" with innocent esthetic detachment. The Woody-Mia-Soon-Yi scandal turns the audience into voyeurs and detectives scouring the film for "clues," decoding it for nuggets of confession. Allen's new movie is in the uncomfortable (but very marketable) position of competing with its own real-life shadow. Bursts of inappropriate laughter greet lines that were never intended for chuckles: when Mia asks screen husband Woody, "Do you ever hide things from me?" knowing elbows nudge censorious sides. When the couple fight over her desire to have another child, how can you not speculate on the tensions that must have riddled this movie set, knowing how closely art is imitating life?
But even if the appalling triangle had never come to light, it would be hard not to see this as one of Allen's most personal films-and hard not to recognize it as his most vital work since "Hannah and Her Sisters." "I felt myself walking into a mess ... everything about it was wrong," says Woody as writing professor Gabe Roth, agonizing over his attraction to his 20-year-old writing student. "It did not deter me. My heart doesn't know from logic.'
Hearts rarely do in Allen's movies. That's been his theme all along, even as expressed in the ribald farce of "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex," in which Gene Wilder falls head over heels for a sheep. Woody uttered the same sentiment in "Crimes and Misdemeanors": "It's very hard to get your heart and head together in life. In my case, they're not even friendly." The confusion is compounded in the complicated emotional geometry of "Husbands and Wives," in which the disintegration of the marriage between Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) sets off a chain reaction that is painfully funny to behold. Gabe's wife, Judy (Farrow), reacts hysterically to the news of their best friends' breakup, for she knows how close to the edge her own marriage is. When Pollack moves in with his young, New Agey aerobics instructor (Lysette Anthony), Mia is quick to fix Davis up with her coworker at an art magazine, Michael (Liam Neeson), though it's clear that she's the one with the crush on Michael. Woody, meanwhile, is being adroitly seduced by the brainy, willful college girl Rain (Juliette Lewis), who has made a habit of enthralling "the midlife-crisis set," including her now insanely jealous shrink.
Allen films this Manhattan self-destruction derby not with his usual meticulously composed images but (with cinematographer Carlo di Palma) in an agitated, handheld, jumpcut style that keeps the viewer as discombobulated as the characters. "Husbands and Wives" is presented as a kind of documentary, complete with interviews conducted by an offscreen psychologist/filmmaker. Allen played with this technique in "Zelig," but there the effect was to keep the viewer at a distance. Here it heightens the immediacy. "Husbands and Wives" is Allen's most uninhibited movie in years. It doesn't suffer from the compulsive tidiness of some of Allen's later movies-the juices are flowing, the hysteria is closer to the surface--and in this looser, more volatile atmosphere his extraordinary cast gets to soar.
Twitching with brainy, neurotic rage, Davis is explosively funny as the hypercritical Sally, a woman whose overactive mind won't give her-or anyone else--any rest. Her scene with an unsuspecting suitor (Timothy Jerome) caught in the revolving door of her anger, is a classic date from hell. Juliette Lewis is no less remarkable as the unnervingly beguiling Rain: as she demonstrated in "Cape Fear," Lewis has the ability to simultaneously register a swarm of conflicting emotions on her quicksilver face. Allen doesn't romanticize Rain the way he did Mariel Hemingway's teenager in "Manhattan." Here Rain is the manipulator, Gabe her flummoxed, foolish victim. It won't go unnoticed that in his art Allen resists the temptation of youth that in real life (and press conferences) he celebrates. In this "fantasy" version of his romantic dilemma, he has cast himself as the noble abstainer, abandoned at the end, sadder but wiser.
Movie director Pollack ("Tootsie") suddenly has a thriving new career in front of the camera. He's a natural as Jack, a rumpled bear learning to swing, and desperately trying to convince himself that his new affair is revitalizing him. Lysette Anthony turns what could have been a simple tofu-bimbo stereotype into a character both more avid and poignant. Neeson plays the uncomplicated, bewildered straight man in this den of emotional thieves, and plays him with a fine, abashed ardor.
Allen isn't easy on his women, and certainly not on Farrow's Judy, under whose sweet, pained brow lurks a cunning, passive-aggressive personality. She's never looked so stressed out, or been so unflatteringly photographed. Woody looks haunted and haggard. When his character confesses his attraction to "kamikaze women" who "crash their planes into you," it's phrased as a joke, but the delivery is pained. Though he gets off some wonderful one-liners, in this movie he tends to trust the funniest scenes to the other members of the cast.
It's not easy to watch Farrow and Allen in this film--not this year, anyway. There are simply too many eerie moments that temporarily throw you out of the movie. That's one of the burdens "Husbands and Wives" will just have to carry. If the movie, which is getting an uncharacteristically wide release this weekend, turns into Woody's biggest hit, you can be sure it won't be for the usual reasons. But funnily enough, it probably would have been his most popular comedy in ages had the media circus never happened: it's hard not to identify with these tangled, bungled affairs of the heart. If this movie "proves" anything, it's that Allen still knows better than most how to turn the demons of domesticity into edgy and hilarious art.