Actor/director John Cassavetes’ cycle of semi-improvised movies reached a new level with Husbands, a showpiece for the acting of Casssavetes and his pals Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. By melding his signature style of spontaneous performance with the specific energies of established screen personalities, Cassavetes achieved a noteworthy synthesis of Hollywood artifice and verité grunginess. Yet while the picture is historically significant as a formative step for the burgeoning indie-cinema aesthetic—of which Cassavetes is now considered the de facto godfather—Husbands is an acquired taste. Like all of the director’s improv-driven pictures, Husbands is an overlong and repetitive survey of unappealing behavior, presenting endless scenes of self-involved people groping with language and violent physicality as they strive to articulate petty anxieties. The problem, as always, is that Cassavetes fails to explore his fascinations in a balanced way, so there’s no real context around the characters. Thus, viewers are subjected to a world in which men have tacit license to follow every whim, no matter how injurious the results might be to other people—and yet viewers are expected to sympathize with these boors.
The story is so simple that the film could (and should) have run 90 minutes instead of nearly 140. After a close friend dies of a sudden heart attack, buddies Frank (Falk), Gus (Cassavetes), and Harry (Gazzara) go on a drunken bender as they wrestle with the shocking reminder of their mortality. The first half of the movie comprises the pals meandering from the funeral to various New York dives, drinking and singing and whining all the way. The second half of the picture begins when Harry fights with his wife and impulsively decides to fly to England. Concerned for Harry’s emotional welfare, Frank and Gus tag along, so the pals end up in a London hotel with three women they pick up in a bar. And so it goes from there, up until the inconclusive ending.
Fans of Cassavetes’ work generally single out the freshness of the acting as a core virtue, but the performances by the three leads in Husbands hardly seem praiseworthy. While it’s true that Cassavetes, Falk, and Gazzara generate verisimilitude by channeling the sloppy way real people move and talk, there’s a reason screen acting generally involves shrinking normal human behavior down to illustrative indicators—watching “real” people in real time is boring. And that, from my perspective, is the best possible adjective for describing Husbands. Sure, critics have spent decades talking about how the picture captures the unchained id of the male animal, blah-blah-blah, and there’s a kernel of truth within that interpretation. After all, the characters in Husbands are as likely to break down in tears as they are to physically and/or verbally abuse women, so there’s nothing flattering in the picture Cassavetes paints. Whether there’s anything interesting in the picture, however, is another matter.