Hannah and Her Sisters

May 26, 2011

Woody Allen seems to love experiments, and he’s got the sort of working situation (nobody tells him what sort of movie he’s required to make) that allows him to indulge his tastes.

It’s a good setup, and Allen has pleased us in recent years with odd baubles such as the pseudo-documentary Zelig, the raucous showbiz Broadway Danny Rose, and last year’s small gem, The Purple Rose of Cairo, none of which reached a very large audience. As lovely as those movies are, a nagging thought stayed with me: When is Woody going to get back to doing the sort of rueful, wise, romantic comedy (Annie Hall and Manhattan) he does best?

Now, such a thought is completely unfair to the Woodman (as Bill Murray used to call him), and if on the arrival of Hannah and Her Sisters we shout “Woody’s back,” it does a disservice to his recent films. Still—Hannah does represent a return to the flavor and feel of Manhattan, and it is his best and most characteristic film since that 1979 masterpiece.

The film centers on three sisters (as did Allen’s Interiors): Hannah (Mia Farrow), the oldest, who seems to have her life in perfect order and control; Lee (Barbara Hershey), whose relationship with a domineering artist (Max Von Sydow) is skidding; and Holly (Dianne Wiest), a would-be actress, would-be singer—would-be almost anything, if she could find her niche and get over her resentment of Hannah’s perfection.

These three get into various romantic entanglements with the three men in the film. Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) launches an affair with Lee, Hannah’s ex-husband (Allen) has a date with Holly that he likens to the Nuremberg Trials. After Holly’s promising date with an architect (Sam Waterston), her partner in the catering business (Carrie Fisher) snatches him away.

Rounding out the cast are the parents of the sisters, played by Lloyd Noland and Maureen O’Sullivan (she’s Farrow’s mother in real life); and Daniel Stern, in a hilarious cameo as a vacuous rock star who wants to buy some of Von Sydow’s paintings, without vaguely understanding why.

It’s a terrific ensemble, and the action cuts back and forth evenly between the characters (some of whom narrate different sections of the film). Allen himself actually has one of the smaller roles, but he garners a lot of laughs as a man who, despite his lifelong hypochondria, is caught short when he suddenly realizes he may actually be seriously ill. At that point, he embarks on a metaphysical journey that leads him to try Catholicism (his survey of 3-D Jesus postcards is a comic high point) and Hare Krishna.

Allen strikes a lovely balance between hurtful romanticism and rueful humor; the characters are immediately recognizable, with all their human faults and durability. Holly is a particularly sharp figure, and Dianne Wiest—a Broadway actress heretofore relegated to peculiar roles in movies such as Independence Day and Footloose—captures all of Holly’s desperate search for a means of expression.

Gordon Willis has been photographing Allen’s films for years, but Carlo di Palma did the honors this time, and he allows a bit more light into the proceedings. It’s a wonderful thing to behold. Allen very likely has his biggest hit in a long time with Hannah, and it couldn’t come at a better time; for him, or us.

First published in the Herald, February 7, 1986

Kind of disappointed in reading this review again—not that I’m wrong about the movie, but this doesn’t convey the particular glow the film conjures up. A great success for Allen, and yet he went on to more unusual projects, which just kept getting unusualler as the years went on.


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