Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) has a lot going for it: winning performances by Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Max von Sydow; a wonderful soundtrack of jazz music that almost deflates the problems of the people in the movie; and a surprisingly grimy portrayal of New York City. To my recollection, it didn’t have any wide shots of the Big Apple, and most of the times the city is shown under a gloomy grey sky or at night, making many of the larger, dirty old buildings seem forlorn and almost Victorian in their gloom, as if they were exported from a Dickens novel about poor people. It feels like a more honest depiction of living in a big city, especially New York in the 80s.
But there is one lovely scene of New York in which Michael Caine—who’s fallen in love with his sister-in-law, Lee (played by Barbara Hershey)—goes with her to a bookstore. Caine retrieves a volume of poems by e.e. cummings and buys it for Lee, insisting that she read the poem on page 112. (Later, we hear a voice-over of Lee reading it, and it’s one of the loveliest moments in the film.) That bookstore was truly heavenly with all those books stacked up, up, up and everywhere. And the romantic complications of Caine and Hershey’s unanticipated love for each other are dealt with relatively lightly, which is a good instinct on the part of Woody Allen.
Woody Allen in many of ways was my biggest problem with Hannah and Her Sisters, and yet, he’s also responsible for much of the good in this very charming, very amusing, film. Allen plays Mickey, the ex-husband of the title character Hannah (Mia Farrow). Micky is the usual Allen type: neurotic, obsessive, whiny, hypochondriacal. And he grates on the nerves in the usual Allen way. But there are some funny bits that he very generously gives himself. For instance, after various medical tests Mickey believes that he’s dying, but when CAT-scan results prove the opposite, he’s left with the reality that eventually, he will die, and that life is rendered meaningless in the light of this fact, especially if there is no God. Mickey, born and raised a Jew, then begins a spiritual quest that leads him to the Catholic Church for a time, and then to the Hare Krishnas for an even shorter time.
But Mickey’s story, which is interwoven with the stories of Hannah, her sister Lee (Hershey), and her other sister, a struggling actress named Holly (Dianne Wiest), is self-indulgent. Although it is funny some of the time, it’s also a constant reminder of the director’s arrogance. Why does it have to be about Woody Allen all the time? Hannah and Her Sisters really shines in some moments, but Mickey’s constant whining about the meaning of life sometimes feels like a buzz kill.
Still, there are so many lovely moments in Hannah and Her Sisters that it’s difficult to dislike the movie just because of the Mickey scenes and their tendency to grate on one’s nerves. Maureen O’Sullivan (mother of Mia Farrow in real life) is another highlight, playing the three sisters’ mom, who still likes to flirt with young men and drinks too much at parties (a tricky combination). She and her husband (played by Lloyd Nolan) have an argument somewhere in the second half of the movie, but it all melts away when he sits down and plays the piano. There’s a scene shortly after at a Thanksgiving gathering they’re hosting, where he sort of introduces his wife by telling a story about her from when they were dating: the men used to be so distracted by her beauty, they would drive their cars into the sidewalk. She smiles and then he plays the piano some more. How lovely that a man can recall such flattering memories of his wife and make her the star of the show with just his words.
Hannah and Her Sisters ends on a problematic note: Mickey begins dating Holly, the failed-actress-turned-struggling-writer, and after they’re married she announces that she’s pregnant. It’s as if Woody Allen was the secret to happiness, because after she writes a play and reads it to him, they begin dating. It seems quite clear that her attraction to him is based on his lavish praise of her writing. (Earlier, the movie shows us a date between them years before where they did not hit it off and vowed to themselves never to see each other again.) It feels phony and hampers the film, which up to that point, at least tries to deal honestly with relationships.
With Carrie Fisher, Julie Kavner, Daniel Stern, Sam Waterston, and Julia Louis Dreyfus.