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Allen's Latest Deserves a Fair Look

LEAVE it to Woody Allen to break new ground. Even the release date of his latest movie, "Husbands and Wives," has been spotlighted in news reports.

The picture was originally slated for mid-September in a handful of theaters. Using the "slow build" approach that usually works for Mr. Allen's films, it would then spread to more screens in additional cities. But the media began spreading word about the personal travails of Allen and his companion Mia Farrow, who are locked in a child-custody battle involving charges of child abuse and Allen's admitted affair with one of Ms. Farrow's adopted daughters.

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You might expect Allen and TriStar Pictures, the distributor of "Husbands and Wives," to be dismayed at such sad publicity - maybe even to yank the movie from its schedule and wait for the commotion to die down.

But hey, this is the Information Age, and publicity is always a good thing. Quickly and cynically, TriStar actually speeded up the picture's premiere and multiplied the number of opening-day cities. This way, the real-life events will be fresh in people's minds, and nobody will overlook the titillating links between Allen's escapades on and off the screen.

Judged apart from the context that regrettably surrounds it, "Husbands and Wives" is a reasonably effective comedy-drama that squarely fits the usual Allen mold. He plays a middle-aged professor whose marriage to a would-be poet (Farrow) is threatened by his attraction to a much younger woman (Juliette Lewis) who gushes over the stories he's written. Carrying equal weight in the movie is a second couple, an editor (Judy Davis) and a lawyer (Sydney Pollack) whose marriage is too solid for a trial separati on - accompanied by trial love affairs - to succeed.

What's the point of all this? As in his earlier movies, Allen is more interested in exploring the feelings of his characters than in making definitive statements on life, love, and commitment. The difficulty with his approach, also familiar from earlier movies, is that his characters are such a narrow, shallow bunch that little can be divined from watching their intellects and emotions squirm under the camera's gaze.

Allen has been criticized for focusing too much of his career on people just like himself: urban, intelligent, insecure, puzzled by their own impulses and anxieties. That wouldn't be a shortcoming if he probed more deeply into these personalities, thereby making discoveries about himself and (by extension) about the human condition. But his digging rarely achieves any real profundity.

WHILE it has moments of dramatic insight, "Husbands and Wives" is typically Allen-like in that ultimately it wants merely to gaze at behavior, not to fathom its causes and consequences. It's an acutely observed film, but a doggedly superficial one.

Allen's screenplay and directing style are adequate to the story he wants to tell here; and he makes interesting use of a pseudo-documentary device that vaguely recalls "Zelig," one of his more memorable films. The performances are also good, aside from Allen's own acting, which demonstrates once again his limited range as a screen personality. Farrow, photographed less luminously than in Allen pictures like "Alice" and "Shadows and Fog," manages to pass beyond the Woody-like mannerisms that have dominat ed her performances lately.

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As the movie's other couple, Ms. Davis is her usual vivid self and Mr. Pollack, best known as a filmmaker in his own right - the comic "Tootsie" and the romantic "Out of Africa" are among his credits - is strikingly resourceful.

A long taxicab scene confirms the promise shown by Ms. Lewis in Martin Scorsese's recent "Cape Fear" remake, although she'll risk juvenile-role typecasting if she doesn't make the transition to grown-up parts pretty soon.

The smartly chosen cast also includes Blythe Danner and Liam Neeson in roles appropriate to their talents. Carlo DiPalma did the well-executed cinematography, and Susan E. Morse is credited with the sometimes tricky editing.

As for the sleazy publicity that has attended the film, the only positive observation to make is that it will eventually fade from view, allowing "Husbands and Wives" to be assessed on its own middling-good terms, as should be done by critics and audiences even now. One looks forward to a time when Allen and Farrow have gotten their lives in order once more, and all of us can concentrate on the cinematic work that gave them their only claim to public attention in the first place. Rated R; contains vulgar language and behavior.

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