Sort of remade (or paid homage to) last year by Ed Burns as "Sidewalks of New York", "Husbands and Wives" is a film that I generally regard as the best effort before Allen entered a more inconsistent era that has gotten progressively worse (see "Curse of the Jade Scorpion"). The film revolves around Gabe and Judy (Allen, Farrow), a moderately happy couple that has become somewhat doubtful about their marriage - a condition that has grown worse once they find out that friends Sally and Jack (Judy Davis, Sydney Pollack) have decided to separate.
Gabe and Judy take this break-up of a seemingly harmonious marriage poorly, not believing that their friend's seemingly harmonious marriage has crumbled. If their friend's marriage didn't work, what's the likelyhood that their own isn't going to run into a major obstacle? We bounce back and forth between all of the characters - there's a darkly hilarious sequence early on when Davis' character leaves in the middle of her date to call Pollack's character to yell at him. She stops, assures her date that everything is ok, then goes back to yelling at him. There's something about the way that Davis yells that's particularly devastating; she's loud, but not shrill - from the looks of her, it's always unexpected that, as an actress, she can bring such genuine fury. Things between the characters get taken to the next level: Jack gets involved with Sam (Lysette Anthony), Gabe starts pondering a relationship with Rain (Juliette Lewis) and Judy sets up Sally with Michael (Liam Neeson), when she might actually like him herself.
While Allen's comedic work can be wildly funny when he's at his best, I found that "Husbands and Wives" was a bit more satisfying and substancial than most of his other recent works - the film maintains a good balance between light, appropriate and observant comedy and drama. As per usual, Allen also maintains a nice focus on each character, making each supporting and main individual interesting. The performances are also excellent. Allen is sharp, clever and a bit less nervous than he usually is. Pollack and Davis both provide good support, as does Farrow ("Husbands and Wives" was the last association between the two). Even Juliette Lewis is amusing and less over-the-top than she usually is.
The only considerable problem - and it does get a bit better as the film goes on - is that Carlo Di Palma's camerawork is a bit too herky-jerky. While Allen's films usually do a marvelous job of using handheld to get right into the middle of the conversation, there's a bit too much movement at times in this film.
Overall though, "Husbands and Wives" is one of Allen's better works of the past 10 years; it's a largely enjoyable and substancial exploration of these relationships. The performances are excellent across-the-board and Allen adds humor nicely at different points along the way.
VIDEO: "Husbands and Wives" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Allen films have been presented by several different studios, with MGM/UA handling the majority of the director's films. Still, Columbia/Tristar has delivered the most consistently pleasing efforts, with the newer "Sweet and Lowdown" looking terrific and "Husbands and Wives" appearing attractive, as well. Sharpness and detail were generally very good; Allen's films always seem very slightly soft, but this film appeared crisp and nicely defined throughout.
Problems were noticable, if not very distracting. Some of Allen's earlier (not that earlier, even) work has appeared rather worn at times. "Husbands and Wives", on the other hand, remained a bit above what I'd expect from a 10-year-old picture. There were a few stray specks and a mark or two on the print used, but they didn't distract, nor did some inconsistent and occasionally mild grain. Edge enhancement wasn't seen, nor was pixelation. Colors remained nicely presented throughout, although some of the darker colors in the interiors could appear very slightly smeared. Overall, a very good transfer.
SOUND: I've come to accept (sort of) the fact that every Woody Allen picture is presented with a mono soundtrack. While most of these films have listenable although completely unremarkable soundtracks, this one seemed a bit more problematic. The film's audio remained clean and without any distortion, but it seemed as if I needed to turn the volume up more than usual to clearly catch every line of dialogue.
MENUS: Very basic menus with no animation or other touches.
EXTRAS: As fans of Allen's work have come to expect mono soundtracks, they've also likely realized that Allen's films have never had any supplements. All Columbia/Tristar is able to offer here are trailers for "Husbands and Wives" and "Manhattan Murder Mystery".
Final Thoughts: "Husbands and Wives" is a sincere exploration of relationships that is occasionally amusing and often genuinely moving and dramatic. It's one of Allen's strongest works and it's well-worth viewing. Columbia/Tristar's DVD edition offers good video, but mediocre audio and suppelements. Still, the DVD is definitely recommended for Allen fans.
The Film *** 1/2