I really like Woody Allen, and like all fans of Allen, I’m an apologist. He’s an acquired taste to be sure. Every year, like clockwork, he makes a new film, and almost every year he makes it harder for people to appreciate his work. But if you look at each film on an individual basis, Allen has given us some real gems, and Hannah and Her Sisters is one of his best.
I really like Woody Allen, and like all fans of Allen, I’m an apologist. The first film of his I remember seeing in its entirety was Mighty Aphrodite (1995). At that point, I didn’t understand any of the references and didn’t know why there was a Greek chorus narrating. But I thought it was funny for some reason and was hooked ever since. I got into Allen around the same time I was getting into jazz which is why after seeing Everyone Says I Love You (1996), (the ultimate jazz nerd musical with a story built around jazz standard songs) I knew this guy had to be some kind of genius…occasionally.
Allen is an acquired taste to be sure. Every year, like clockwork, he makes a new film, and almost every year he makes it harder for people to appreciate his work. Great films like Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) sit next to mediocre sentimental schlock like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), seemingly daring audiences to like the next film he gives us. On top of that, he’s the ultimate example of life imitating art, you know, because of the whole dating your semi-adopted daughter thing (I only added the word “semi” because I’m a dedicated fan). But if you look at each film on an individual basis, Allen has given us some real gems, and 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters is one of his best.
The movie focuses on three sisters and their extended family. Holly (Diane Wiest) is the youngest sister who works as a caterer to support her awesome cocaine habit, though she dreams of acting and/or writing maybe. Lee (Barbara Hershey) lives with a reclusive artist (Max von Sydow) and struggles to find her own identity outside of her boyfriend’s huge personality. And Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the anchor of the family. She’s the successful actress that holds everything together with a strong sense of responsibility and understated passive aggression. The film deals primarily with 2 years in the life of this family, and their extended family, including Michael Caine as Hannah’s cheating husband Elliot, and Woody himself as Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey, a hypochondriac going through a near death experience.
What I love about Allen is the way he incorporates outside influences into his own storytelling. He’s always been a big fan of Swedish Director Ingmar Bergman, and in this film he really finds the perfect balance between Bergman’s dramatic longing and his own neurotic comedy. The perfect example of this is in Caine’s character Elliot. He wants desperately to cheat on his wife with her own sister, and Allen finds a way to make this hilarious, with Elliot constantly psyching himself up through voice over and then doing the exact wrong thing every time. Mickey’s story is also very serious, about a guy dealing with the fact that he probably has brain cancer and trying to find meaning in his life – but told through Allen’s sensibility it becomes a funny series of whining and testing out different religions by buying all the necessary trinkets.
In this movie Allen makes emo funny. Every character is dealing with some kind of emotional crisis. Weist’s Holly tries to compete with her friend (Carrie Fisher) for the affections of an architect (Sam Waterston) and has to deal with being second fiddle. Hershey’s Lee struggles with infidelity and being her husband’s only link to the outside world. Farrow’s Hannah is over-nurturing and drives everyone in her life away because of it. Their mom is a raging alcoholic who talks about her various love affairs in front of her husband. This is all serious stuff that could easy turn into a cry-fest, but Allen somehow makes it funny…really funny.
I’ve seen this movie way too many times, and one thing that you don’t notice at first is how rigidly structured it is. The film spans 2 years, starting and ending with a Thanksgiving dinner with the family, and is divided by title cards that bookmark certain character’s arcs. This works because you get lost in the journey of each individual, and the constant cutting between stories is perfectly paced. You get the sense that each character is interesting enough to warrant their own film, so the brief glimpses into their lives works really well.
Overall, this might just be my favorite Woody Allen film. It’s definitely the one I’ve watched the most. Even though his films are often hit or miss, when he’s at his best, he’s hard to beat. And this is one of the best.
It’s definitely worth noting that our own Movieland will be showing Hannah and Her Sisters as part of their Movies and Mimosas series this Sunday (5/31) at 11am. I will be there geeking out and maybe drinking!
The movie is amazing…just ignore that 10 year old extra, Soon-Yi.