John Cassavetes’ films ostensibly explore what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real, but his conception of stark, unvarnished reality sometimes feels awfully artificial. Cassavetes was never afraid to show humanity at its worst; it was showing humanity at its best, or even its most mediocre, that proved prohibitively difficult. The iconoclastic filmmaker was less interested in observing human behavior than in dramatizing it at its most extreme, intense, and actor-friendly. His 1970 tour de force Husbands, which just received a long-overdue DVD release, accordingly alternates between moments of brutal, dark-night-of-the-soul honesty and scenes that play like extended acting-class exercises.
A melancholy mood piece about the perils of trying to return to adolescence, Husbands stars writer-director Cassavetes, Method madman Ben Gazzara, and the eternally rumpled Peter Falk as unhappily domesticated longtime friends from suburban New York who reunite for a friend’s funeral. Raw with grief, the titular trio blunts their sorrows in binge drinking and rowdy camaraderie before deciding to visit London to chase women they hope won’t be too put off by their unmistakable auras of desperation and depression. Cassavetes’ stumbling anti-heroes are trying to escape middle-class lives grown stagnant and claustrophobic, but they can’t escape themselves or their hopelessly conventional, middle-class mindsets.
Husbands begins in a state of profound emotional and spiritual exhaustion and grows more emotionally apocalyptic with each successive scene. The film indelibly captures the hollow feeling that ensues when drinking, partying, and hanging out stop being fun and become a grueling endurance test. Cassavetes specializes in long improvisational takes that luxuriate in the awkwardness of people trying and failing to make a connection with other human beings. Husbands is a portrait of a friendship that has outgrown its usefulness and men who discover just how unfulfilling acting like adolescents can be. Intentionally exhausting and painful, the film was subtitled “a comedy about life, death, and freedom” during its original theatrical run, but it’s less funny-ha-ha or funny-strange than funny-agonizingly-sad.
Key features: A dry making-of featurette and a drier audio commentary by film scholar Marshall Fine.