A rightfully restored classic or unearthed hipster trash? This difficult comedy-drama from the front-running American auteur John Cassavetes uses a stellar cast and meandering improvisation to create a capricious study on middle aged, middle class suburbia.
For a ramshackle, partly improvised movie, it starts with a surprisingly promising narrative arc. After the death of their fourth musketeer, friends Archie, Harry and Gus, (Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Cassavetes himself) go through the motions of grief, nostalgia and copious amounts of booze on a four day break from their wives and kids waiting for them at home. Drinking New York State dry, they impulsively hop on a plane headed to London. Amongst all the hedonism, they soon come to the realization that they suffer from arrested development: still filled with vigor yet chained by the tediously conventional suburban lives they have back on the other side of the pond.
As Cassavetes’ fourth feature film as a director, Husbands shows the jobbing actor-cum-filmmaker was now well versed with the cinéma vérité style he lovingly borrowed from the French new wave. With handheld photography, documentary style lighting and erratic, off-subject framing, the form perfectly matched Husbands recklessly muddled storyline of three white men going off the rails.
Proving that improvisation can work wonders with his previous films’ Shadows and Faces, Husbands proves how it can often go horribly wrong. Whilst the three amigos’ natural chemistry is endearing to watch, it eventually becomes grating and languid. There are many one-take scenes that are so excruciatingly long, that everyone onscreen looks as if their waiting to hear someone yell “CUT!”; whilst Cassavetes is anxiously waiting for a beat, a joke, or something (anything) to warrant the used film reel. Fortunately, the free-form style occasionally stumbles on elements of sublime comedy, particularly with an all-nighter basketball game and an exhausted casino sequence, but they entertain us by the acting performances alone, rather than the situation.
Gazzara portrays the most slovenly character of the trio with a brutal sincerity that would prove good stock for two later Cassavetes outings’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and his latter day masterwork Opening Night. Peter ‘Columbo’ Falk impresses too as the rogue with little man syndrome, brawling his way into the picture. As standard, Cassavetes is perhaps the most assured of the three, but still manages to cackle his way through the romp(s).
As unsure of the next plot turn as the performers on screen, Husbands suffers from tonal shift. We warm to these characters whilst being simultaneously appalled by their selfish behavior; most uncomfortably with two back-to-back bedroom sequences where Archie and Gus lasciviously pester two young girls for sex. If Cassevetes can attach any authoritative statement to this movie it’s that the trios lustful tendencies are almost institutionalized aspects of husbandry. A hypothesis that will certainly turn off the fairer sex, Cassavetes tries too hard to trivialize the sentiment and play it for laughs. But this is no Benny Hill, and the resounding impression of Husbands’ is that of tragedy wrapped in a comedic, Columbo-sized cloak.
Forty-two years on from it’s first release, this timely restoration of Husbands shows us the brittle hilarity and hardships fate can shove on us all. Even if the material is slight and outdated, it’s fantastic to see three actors at the top of their game and enjoying each other’s company. Falk, Gazzara and Cassavetes are no longer with us, but Husbands’ buddy film legacy still permeates the movies today.