Timing is everything. It was reported this weekend that the two new Hollywood films requested for special screenings by the White House were The Post, the urgently-made historical chronicle of journalism under siege about the Washington Post’s 1971 efforts to publish The Pentagon Papers following government-led legal sanctions against The New York Times, and The Greatest Showman, a lighthearted, aspirational musical about a show business figure who perfects flimflammery into a profitable cultural phenomenon. In our current real vs. reel vs. fake news era, it’s remarkable that you can’t make this stuff up. Writer-director Woody Allen asserts that he totally made up the characters and situations of his raw, cutting and comical Husbands and Wives (1992). A quarter-century later, it still stings and titillates, not just because of its observational broadsides about the maddening push-pull of modern marriages and romantic relationships, but also because of its timing. As Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross observe in The Motion Picture Guide: “It is unfortunate that Husbands and Wives will be remembered as the film that mirrored, with unnerving accuracy, a real-life domestic struggle that was reported in the popular media just as the movie first appeared in theaters. Inextricably linked in the public mind with the messy painful dispute that erupted between its director-writer-star Woody Allen and his longtime partner and leading lady Mia Farrow, Husbands and Wives is nevertheless one of Allen’s strongest films ever, a powerful, painful and occasionally funny reflection on the limitations of love and marriage.”
Allen daringly tempted fate by the stylistic choice, working in concert with regular collaborators Carlo Di Palma on camera and Susan E. Morse at the editing table, of fashioning it in semi-documentary style (complete with an off-screen narrator/facilitator voiced by costume designer Jeffrey Kurland), complete with zigzagging camera moves and frequent jump cuts, emphasizing the characters’ extreme dislocation brought on by the personal havoc they themselves wreak and in turn setting the viewer on edge as well, because, naturally, documentaries are real, aren’t they? The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert succinctly nailed it: “What Husbands and Wives argues is that many ‘rational’ relationships are actually not as durable as they seem, because somewhere inside every person is a child crying me! me! me! We say we want the other person to be happy. What we mean is, we want them to be happy with us, just as we are, on our terms.” The situations could be set up for lacerating humor and for caustic rage; Allen gives us both barrels. As The Motion Picture Guide recaps: “Noted author Gabe Roth (Allen) teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York City. His wife of 10 years, Judy (Farrow), works as an editor for an art magazine. To Gabe and Judy’s genuine shock, their best friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) announce they are splitting up. Jack pursues a beautiful aerobics instructor, Sam (Lysette Anthony), while Judy fixes Sally up with an earnest coworker (Liam Neeson), whom she’d secretly like for herself. Meanwhile, Gabe becomes increasingly infatuated with Rain (Juliette Lewis), a bright young student in his class.”
Time’s Richard Corliss weighed in thusly in August 1992: “The thing to realize now is that Allen wrote this movie long before he says he became involved with Soon-Yi. The thing that moviegoers will realize decades hence is that Husbands and Wives is a damn fine film. The only ones sure to be hurt are those viewers who can’t get used to the nosy, nausea-invoking camera style in the movie’s fake documentary format. Take some Dramamine, folks. Then savor the desperate wit and sharp acting – especially that of Davis, who executes high comedy with the world’s tensest mouth, and Farrow, doggedly searching for an Adam in a new Eden.” Davis would earn a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award® nomination and win National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Kansas City Film Critics Awards for her exhilaratingly edgy work, while Allen captured an Oscar® nod and BAFTA honors for his unsparing screenplay. Husbands and Wives takes no prisoners when it debuts January 23 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday January 10.