Hannah and Her Sisters

Debi Lee Mandel

Quick—what do almost all Woody Allen films feature more than any other director's (besides Woody Allen...)? Fabulous roles for women. Since Annie Hall, this auteur has created an Amazon horde of memorable female characters, all of whom embody the multitudinous facets of being a woman, as well as the exasperation men experience in relation to them. No wonder we love him.

Hannah and Her Sisters just might be Allen's pièce de résistance. With six distinct and indelible women—Hannah (Farrow), a successful actress and mother; her own mother Norma (O'Sullivan, Farrow's real mom), an aging actress; her sister Holly (Wiest), a struggling actress who starts a catering business with her friend, April (Fisher); the youngest sister, Lee (Hershey), an avid neophyte, and Mickey's (Allen) assistant, Gail (Kavner)—he crafts an entertaining and provocative interior of familial relationships, sibling polemics and emotional escapades that rivals the best of 19th-century literature.

But the women are not alone here. Hannah's husband, Elliot (Caine), is infatuated to distraction with her sister, Lee; Frederick (von Sydow) is the reclusive, didactic artist Lee lives with; her father (Nolan), who is overshadowed by his wife; Mickey (Allen), her ex- husband and father of her children; and David Tolchin (Waterston), an architect who can't seem to decide if he is interested in Holly or April, wooing them both with opera and other intellectual pursuits. While Elliot is perhaps most central to the story, Hannah is the tie that binds them all—and therefore, this naturalistic comedy—together.

In less than two hours, the film carries us over the course of 2 years, bookended by Thanksgiving dinners. We learn enough about each of these many characters to think we know them—a truly stunning feat, but only the place where good writers begin. Allen puts such genuine dialogue in their mouths that each persona becomes both unique and familiar, and this superb cast delivers every moment with garrulous authenticity.

While Hannah's family experience their habitual contentions, the character that threads through the story is Mickey, a faint-hearted TV executive and the epitomic Woody Allen we now think of when his name is mentioned: a timorous, dissatisfied Jewish hypochondriac who strikes out with women and happens to be terrified of dying. Fearing he has a brain tumor, Mickey provides most of the film's comic release: Desperate to comprehend the incomprehensible—the fundamental questions of life and death ("I thought, 'Well, what if I'm wrong? What if there really is a god?' After all, nobody really knows. But then I thought, 'No. MAYBE isn't good enough. I want certainty or nothing.'")—he casts his faith into the spiritual wind to search for answers. At one point, he turns to Catholicism, and does a bit of shopping that becomes more of a Jewish joke on goyishe ways. In the end, he has his epiphany, and it's the Marx Brothers who deliver his raison d'être.

Although Mickey Saxe is quintessential Woody, he does not steal the show. Every member of the cast, down to the ambient characters, present a flawless ensemble effort that adds to the organic realism of the whole:

Michael Caine, who won one of seven Oscars® for which the film was nominated, renders Elliot so utterly human in his heart that we forgive him his many, many flaws. Dianne Wiest (who won both of her Oscars® in Allen films, including this one) stretches Holly from breathlessly manic to sweetly enthusiastic, with a flashback to irritable cokehead in between. Hershey is vulnerable and lovely, although somewhat dispassionate. And yes, even Farrow holds her own as the sympathetic and sensible sibling everyone relies on—and envies—in turn.

"You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz. More gruesome film clips and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question 'How could it possibly happen?' is that it's the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is 'Why doesn't it happen more often?'" - Frederick

Max von Sydow. Speaking distractedly, eating a sandwich, washing it down with coffee, he delivers these lines as if he's thought them, in that moment, himself—to say nothing of his jealous rage, minutes later. Stunning in his brevity, his Frederick represents one of the minor roles that highlight the subtle texture of the script, for which Allen won Hannah's third Academy Award® (original screenplay).

Also, watch for a brief cameo from John Turturro as an angry writer on Mickey's show; Julia Louis-Dreyfus with impossible big hair; and a throw back scene to Allen's 1973 effort, Sleeper.

Hannah and Her Sisters is infused with veracity, pathos and humor, but its most conspicuous quality is brilliantly inconspicuous: this may well be the original "show about nothing." Allen leads us through a subtle gamut of condensed emotions, and we walk away content, having experienced something—it's just that it was an uneventful something.

What did happen, happened to us: While Allen guides us through the ordinary peccadilloes of our mortal coils, he magnifies those things we take for granted and invites us to cherish the mundane. He offers the concept that there are no answers, there is only life and that we should "enjoy it while it lasts." In this spirit, he gives us a glimpse of ordinary people leading ordinary lives, reminding us that life is in the details; that we live every minute as best we can until the clock runs down.

Not exactly a drama or a comedy, this is an uplifting experience in that oh-so-Woody way.

"I like him. I think he's a sweet guy, the few times that I've met him. 'Cause he's a loser. He's awkward and he's clumsy like me. So I like that... I always like an under confident person, you know?"

We know, Woody.

Hannah and Her Sisters is damn near perfect and deserves an equal transfer. While dissecting the ordinary exploits that define the human essence, it all the while celebrates them. If your brain hurts when you think, cross back over your Maginot Line (look it up) and rent Bananas. This is an exuberant accomplishment you won't soon forget.

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