Picks and Pans Review: Husbands and Wives

updated 09/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Judy Davis, Juliette Lewis, Liam Neeson, Sydney Pollack

At best, this putative comedy about the inherent instability of romantic relationships would seem depressingly cynical, melancholy and only intermittently funny. This is a film devoted, after all, to the expressed credo "In the end, what matters is to not expect too much out of life." But it is also burdened with the public dissolution of Allen and Farrow's offscreen love affair. Listen for the distracting titters in the audience every time Allen or Farrow, who play a Manhattan couple whose marriage is deteriorating, says something that seems self-referential, as when Farrow asks, "Would you ever keep any secrets from me?"

The only effective joke by writer-director Allen comes when he, playing a 50ish college writing teacher, is trying to deflect the verbal seductions of Lewis (Cape Fear), his precocious 20-year-old student, and mutters, "Why is it I keep hearing $50,000 worth of psychotherapy trying to dial 911?"

Pointlessly framed as a pseudo-documentary about Davis and Pollack (Allen has often parodied the documentary style with far better, wittier results), the film is uncharacteristically vulgar by Allen's standards—with Davis, especially, being saddled with scatological exclamations and F-word conjugations and declensions. (At one demoralizingly stupid point, Davis shrieks, "This is my f—ing house!" And Allen can't come up with anything more clever for Pollack to reply than, "This is my f—ing house!"

Davis (Barton Fink) and Pollack, best known as a director (Tootsie, Out of Africa), play Allen and Farrow's best friends. Their breakup leads Allen and Farrow, already feuding over Farrow's wish to have a baby, to split too, just as Allen is starting to haphazardly court Lewis.

There are relationships aplenty, with Davis engaging in a fling with the stolid Neeson (Darkman), while Pollack hooks up with Lysette (Switch) Anthony, an astrology-spouting aerobics instructor who thinks Shakespeare's play about an aging monarch was called King Leo.

None of this constitutes an affirmation of the power of love. Davis, mordantly portraying a controlling harpy with both Pollack and Neeson, suggests the only choices are "chronic instability" or "suburban boredom."

Allen seems intent, in fact, not only on muddled middles but unhappy endings. He also disdains the playfulness that has always relieved the psychological tension of even his most pointed, serious-undertoned comedies. This film plays mostly like a bitter, oppressive Upper West Side soap opera—full of New York City insider jokes about local streets and elitist slams at everything from vegetarians to television.

Ironically, while they seem to be essentially playing themselves, Allen and Farrow do some of the best acting of their careers. They never seem to be having fun, though, and people who see the movie are unlikely to find much to enjoy either. (R)

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