CINEMA / Mid-life Woody goes crabby

IN HIS new movie, Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen plays a content and courageous naval officer with a large family and a varied sporting life, who one day . . . sorry, my mistake. I was daydreaming. Correction: in his new movie, Woody Allen plays a New York Jewish writer with a marriage past its sell-by date and a salad of mixed troubles. In short, the usual.

What's more, it's a set menu. No one in this forceful and flustered movie has any choice; they all get it in the neck, or the heart, or the bitter end. Gabe Roth (Allen) is married to Judy (Mia Farrow) - happily enough, or so it seems for, oh, a good 90 seconds. At that point their best friends turn up and say they've split up, a shock that ripples through the rest of the plot. So Jack (Sydney Pollack) leaves Sally (Judy Davis), and finds the tofu-chewing Sam (Lysette Anthony), which proves there's something in the airhead, while Sally inches towards Michael (Liam Neeson), who already has a crush on Judy, or at least a slight squeeze, rather like what Gabe gets from his adoring student Rain (Juliette Lewis). Got it?

If this sounds busy, just wait and see what it looks like. The hand-held camera is more promiscuous than any of the characters - flirting with faces, zooming to attention, then losing interest and moving on. At one point in a conversation it even stops following the speakers and gazes at the interior decor instead, as if remembering that it's rude to stare at people for too long. Miles away from the good looks of Manhattan, this is a big surprise - even to Allen himself, I suspect, who makes the opening scene so hectic as to be unwatchable, then slowly quietens things down. It makes you wonder how far he's thought the style through, whether he has the courage of his own convention. When Godard slung his camera round Paris in the early 1960s, he looked happy to be hurried, not daring to miss the beat of the times; the jump-cut was like a new dance craze. Allen makes it lively but deadly; the emotional tempo never quite keeps up with the visual hop. It's like a middle- aged man trying to crash a teenage rave, and only making things worse by bringing his own records.

This is good news for the tee-hee brigade, of course, those viewers still licking their chops at recent comings-on in the Allen household. But the film is odd enough as it is: scared and embittered, grabbing at lost youth rather than the promise of a single young love. It's by far the most profane of Allen's movies, letting off steam in a hiss of abuse - Sally phoning Jack with a full rundown of all his bullshit, Jack keeping enough back to throw at Sam. In his wrath, he even starts reversing into parked cars - once a comic crunch for Woody himself in Annie Hall, now a demonstration of bleeding adult nerves. Watching Husbands and Wives, I realised why his serious movies feel as seasick as they do: the timing is still primed for gags, and Allen's own delivery still stammers towards a punchline - 'mmm . . . mmm . . . me? Wh . . . what kind of things?' - and when nothing arrives we get left with an embarrassing gulf, the deck of the drama suddenly tipping under our feet.

Yet for all this, the new film intrigues and shakes us with a force not felt in Allen's work for some time. Again he's collected a beefy cast, but for once they seem to kick not so much at mental misery, or the bars of marriage, as against the unseeing fate that has shut them up inside a Woody Allen movie. Liam Neeson, for instance, must have looked at his lines - bald and bare as an old tyre - and wondered how on earth they could lead anywhere; yet he arrives at one of the most convincing sketches of goodness in recent cinema, all that bulk bent to the task of decency and the urgent need for a kiss. The role could so easily have turned slimy with ingratiation, but you sense that Michael honestly doesn't care about Sally's whinges, and just wants to concentrate on the business of falling in love.

Heroic, really, because dear old Sally . . . I mean, just how close can one feel to a gooseberry bush? Though Judy Davis is lumped with the neurotic lead, she never lets it load her down; Sally's spirit may be built from shards of glass - there's a brilliance in her discontent - but tucked away behind, like a laugh at the back of the throat, is a full awareness of this woman's absurdity. Davis is the critic of her own creation - she gives it all she's got, a full tank of talent, but doesn't take it as solemnly as the director does. And she holds out for the traditional Davis make-up: the skin all drained and drawn, as if she just saw a monster, and the lips dark with blood-and-berry stains, as if she were one. It's the world of Woody Allen in one face, the professional worrier choking on a social atmosphere that she herself has fostered.

Allen's own expression gives less away, or rather gives all the old messages with a new-found weariness. Throughout the film, each character speaks to camera in a mock interview; when it comes to Gabe, he sits there in a shirt of pale brown, to match the spines of the books behind, as well as his hair and face. Other American actors have tans; Woody has arrived at much the same hue by playing too many writers - it's like looking at old parchment, ruled and pricked once too often by some stingy monk. And out of this brown study trots a succession of woolly lines, those appeals to easy thinking that have warmed every Allen project since Annie Hall. 'The insights were great,' he coos to Rain when she shows him a short story. Her desires are great too: 'to write, to fall in love, to experience passion.' What happened to travelling, honey? And how about working with sick animals?

For sheer dreaminess, a Woody Allen script is really just over the border from Capra country; less pink-cheeked ambition, more urban panic, but just as vague with thwarted longings. It's strange how sour the results can be; Husbands and Wives takes the same kinds of dancing passions that looped through Hannah and her Sisters, and turns them into a crabby-go-round. There are flashes of old bliss - the party in the Hamptons where Gabe met Judy, all tennis sweaters and citrus sunlight - and a corny clinch during a thunderstorm, with Rain playing Dido to Gabe's Aeneas. But the rest of the movie feels down on its luck and its fun, and even the closing ceremonies of togetherness feel booby-trapped, ready to burst and set the whole cycle going again. Whatever else it achieves, Husbands and Wives leaves you longing to know how Allen will take to old age: will the twitchy camera turn senile, or shrug the years away? Is there a mellow season in store, or will the brainbox carry on rattling? As someone says to Gabe, when he explains that his wife has moved out: 'Oh, you writers'.

Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a long, becalmed and hollow hull of a movie about the old order bumping into the New World. The exact moment of contact is beautifully staged - mist pulling away like a curtain to reveal the great green innocence beyond, a slow-motion foot glooping down into the mud of the shore. The foot belongs to Gerard Depardieu, whose salty, rope-haired Columbus is the best thing about the film: sailing west with half a hope of glory is exactly the kind of daft thing he'd do. Somehow Depardieu survives the film's worship of his character - Columbus the native-lover, rebel, pantheist and vegetarian. Is that really the best we can do for our heroes - bring them into line with fashionable modern ethics? I suppose it matches the absurd Vangelis score (why have electronic squawks when you've got real parrots?) and the silly lines. I particularly enjoyed the world's first cigar - 'just enjoy the flavour of the tobacco' - and the nobleman described as 'extremely motivated', which suggests he would have done better to go round the other way and discover California.

'Husbands and Wives' (15): Odeon Kensington (371 3166), Screen on the Green (226 3520), Whiteleys (792 3324); '1492: Conquest of Paradise' (15): Empire (437 1234), MGM Fulham Rd (370 2636) & Trocadero (434 0032), Whiteleys. All numbers are 071.

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