Perfection is boring, but boring is the very last word to describe “Hannah and Her Sisters” (selected theaters), which just may be a perfect movie.
Mellow, beautiful, rich and brimming with love, “Hannah” is the best Woody Allen yet and, quite simply, a great film. It’s Allen with greater emotional complexity than we’ve seen before, more understanding of the foibles of others, less edgy about his own. It’s still smart, still funny--you aren’t going to take that away from this New Yorker--but “Hannah’s” comedy doesn’t lacerate, it alleviates.
The film is set--nested is probably a better word--deep in the lives of one remarkable family whom we follow from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving over a two-year period. At its hub is the radiant Hannah (Mia Farrow), a sometime actress who prefers life at home with Elliot, her comfortable business manager-husband (Michael Caine), and their numerous children (Farrow’s own) to life on any stage.
Moving outward from this snug center, we meet Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest), Hannah’s beloved, beautiful and not uncomplicated sisters, and their parents (Maureen O’Sullivan and the late Lloyd Nolan), semi-retired actors.
Wiest, a sometime actress, maybe singer, slave to fashion and all-around evolving personality, is easily the goofiest of the three, the most fragile and possibly the most talented, if that talent can ever be divined. Currently she and actress-buddy Carrie Fisher form the entire working staff of the Stanislavski Catering Co., cooking between engagements.
Hershey has been living for some years with Frederick (Max Von Sydow), an opinionated, reclusive painter who can’t stand her roistering family gatherings. Finally, however, nights together in front of public-TV discussions of the Holocaust have begun to pall, leaving Hershey a perfect target for the touching, almost inchoate passion that has welled up in another man. The only complicating factor is that the man is Michael Caine, her sister’s husband.
Allen has gotten to a point of ease where he can set up everything described here in one spellbinding opening sequence--a holiday dinner whose antic familiarity makes you grin just watching it. This lustful bustling is photographed in noticeably warmer tones than usual, not by Gordon Willis, Allen’s usual collaborator, but by Carlo Di Palma, Italian cinematographer of “Red Desert” and “Blow Up,” and bound together with the clear notes of Harry James playing “You Made Me Love You.” Weaving in and out of the story is Allen himself as Mickey, Farrow’s ex-husband, now a successful TV comedy producer. He’s an even more successful hypochondriac, who can come up with a second medical opinion in under three minutes flat. It’s Mickey who, after a medical scare, worriedly pursues one of mankind’s more crucial issues, the apparent meaninglessness of life.
Mickey’s solution is religion--any religion. He even entertains the thought of converting to Catholicism for about five minutes. Fortunately, author Allen comes up with the sublime existential answer--with a little help from three friends, who shall remain unnamed here.
As he follows the evolving and rebounding relationships of these New Yorkers, Allen strikes several strongly positive notes: families and their healing pull; the security of “being connected to things,” and the great good sense of keeping one’s adulterous relationships to oneself.
We share his fascination with the patterns and problems of these three women, each of whom is one facet of idealized Woman: the mother, the lover, the free spirit. There is Wiest’s ditzy charm and almost crippling insecurity; Hershey’s struggle to right herself in this love affair and to do something with her life, and Farrow, caught in everyone’s perceptions of her as the strong, unneedy one.
Allen brings these tensions to a stunning peak as all three sisters, burdened with held-in emotions, sit at lunch in an uptown restaurant. As their concerns mount and tensions increase, so does the circling pace of the camera, orbiting round and round them in an echo of their turmoil.
The strength of “Hannah” is that Allen no longer casts himself as the schlumpish outsider, looking in on a world forever denied to him. In a delightful, flirtatious scene at a record store, he permits himself to move into this charmed circle. (In this moment you see indelibly the full, fey Allen charm. It’s quite something.)
The picture is crammed with a sense of shared joy. It’s, again, a visual love letter to New York. One of the characters, an architect played by Sam Waterston, takes Wiest and Fisher--and us--on a privately conducted tour of buildings he treasures, and we see the city through Allen’s affectionate eyes, in the same way we share his transparent delight in these lovely women.
His cast is absolutely splendid, although it must be said that he’s loaded the dice in the women’s favor. As the wife and mother supreme, Farrow is the embodiment of any husband’s alternately lustful and cozy dreams. With her beautiful brow and innocently seductive grin, Hershey is the radiant and absolutely unobscure object of (everyone’s) desire. As the most fearless adventurer of the piece, although she’s the last to recognize it, Wiest at last comes into her own, in a brilliant, brash, only slightly comic definition of today’s up-to-the-minute New Yorker. And as a sort of this generation’s young Thelma Ritter, Julie Kavner is outstanding as Allen’s long-suffering television partner.
Caine is lovely as a husband amazed to find himself in such precarious moral surroundings; Von Sydow’s performance lets us know just why Hershey would be drawn to, then cooled by such intense glumness, and if you look quickly you can see the genially gangly Daniel Stern and Tony Roberts in an unbilled, delicious vignette. And Allen is his quite reliable old self, with less of a lemon twist.
And what a message: Hold fast. Wait it out. Things may come out right in the end. Woody, is that you?
‘HANNAH AND HER SISTERS’ An Orion release of a Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe production. Producer Robert Greenhut. Executive producers Rollins, Joffe. Director, writer Woody Allen. Camera Carlo Di Palma. Editor Susan E. Morse. Production design Stuart Wurtzel; set decoration Carol Joffe. Costume design Jeffrey Kurland. Sound Les Lazarowitz. Associate producer Gail Sicilia. With Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max Von Sydow, Dianne Wiest.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned to give special guidance for attendance of children under 13).