Gus, Harry, and Archie (Cassavetes, Gazzara and Falk, respectively) are three nominally happy husbands with families in suburban New York. All are professional men, driven and successful. The three of them have known each other since their collegiate youths. They have grown up together and have now had enough time to discover that their youth is disappearing from around them and that there is nothing they can do to preserve it. As the film begins, they are shaken into confronting this reality when their best friend Stuart, the first friend from their fast disappearing youth, dies suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack.
They have difficulty coping with the death and everywhere they turn or flee in the city they can't seem to run from it. They spend two days hanging out, playing basketball, sleeping in the subways, and drinking, including one lengthy scene at a bar in which they have an impromptu singing contest. Harry goes home, has a vicious argument with his wife, and decides to fly to London. The other two decide to go with him.
They check into an expensive hotel, dress in formal clothing, and meet three young women at a gambling casino. They go back to their rooms with the women. Gus pairs off with Mary Tynan (Jenny Runacre), Archie with Julie (Noelle Kao), a young Asian woman who seems not to speak English, and Harry with Pearl Billingham (Jenny Lee-Wright). However, their efforts to hook up with these women are awkward and unsuccessful. Flight (even to another continent), has not saved them from the disappearance of their youth. They discover it has gone, never to return.
Gus and Archie decide to go back to New York, but Harry stays behind. As the film ends, Gus and Archie express concern about Harry and what he will do without them.
The film received dramatically disparate receptions, with some prominent critics loving the film and others hating it. Life magazine put Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara on its cover, and Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel put the film on his list of top ten films of the year.
Critic Jay Cocks said in Time magazine that "Husbands may be one of the best movies anyone will ever see. It is certainly the best movie anyone will ever live through." He described it as an important and great film, and as Cassavetes' finest work. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert said that "seldom has Time given a better review to a worse movie." New Yorker critic Pauline Kael described Husbands as "infantile and offensive."
Writing in The New York Times, Vincent Canby said of the film that, like Faces, which was "rambling and funny and accurate, and which I admired, the new film demonstrates a concern for panicky, inarticulate squares that is so unpatronizing that it comes close to being reverential in a solemnly religious sense." But Canby said the film was "unbearably long," and said, "It's as if someone decided to photograph a tug-of-war and photographed only the rope between the contestants." He said of the three characters that "when it's all over, they are tired, but not much wiser—which is pretty much the sum and substance of Husbands."
Ebert's review said that Husbands "is disappointing in the way Antonioni's Zabriskie Point was. It shows an important director not merely failing, but not even understanding why." Ebert found the actors' improvisations unsuccessful: "There are long passages of dialogue in which the actors seem to be trying to think of something to say." A Cleveland Press critic said that "the dialog consists of fragments, of exclamations, of three actors trying to upstage each other. What has been done is undisciplined and what has been given us is unselective. The camera runs and simply photographs everything that passes before it. The microphone listens. It is like a big budget home movie."
The Guardian: "The result is highly uneven, painfully drawn-out, deeply sincere, wildly misogynistic and at times agonisingly tedious. It is also intermittently brilliant, with moments of piercing honesty. There is, however, not a single memorable line of dialogue or anything that might pass for wit. On the other hand, Cassavetes's gifts as a director of actors are evident."
Reviewing a DVD release of the film in August 2009, Richard Brody of the New Yorker said that "this formally radical, deeply personal work still packs plenty of surprises."
Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara made a notorious appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on September 18, 1970, ostensibly to promote the movie, but actively avoiding almost every question Cavett asked about it. They admitted to drinking before the show.