Hannah and Her Sisters

Pictures of delight - 'Hannah' resonates with contentment

John Hartl

Hannah and Her Sisters marks Woody Allen's return to the personal view of big-city angst he explored in the late 1970s in Annie Hall, Manhattan and the much-maligned Interiors.

Once again, he finds humor and pain in the lives of a group of New Yorkers with romantic, philosophical and career troubles. They're not so disconnected this time - as the title suggests, the script revolves around a family, a much happier family than the one in Interiors - but their problems are much the same.

For those Allen fans who regard his recent work as slight and gimmicky, this is terrific news. But even if you enjoyed the offbeat slant of Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, you'll probably find Hannah and Her Sisters a most welcome change of direction. At 104 minutes, it's his longest movie; it may also be his richest.

The tangled relationships involve an agent (Michael Caine) who is beginning an affair with the sister (Barbara Hershey) of his actress-wife (Mia Farrow), and a TV comedy producer (Woody Allen) who was once married to Farrow and now dates her neurotic other sister (Dianne Wiest). Hershey's bitter artist-lover (Max von Sydow), Wiest's business partner (Carrie Fisher) and the parents of the sisters (Maureen O'Sullivan, the late Lloyd Nolan) also have substantial roles.

Each of the sisters goes through a crisis, and the movie is finally theirs. So often wasted in superficial roles, Hershey fulfills the promise she showed 17 years ago in Last Summer; she's both radiant and miserable as a woman who can't resist the attentions of her sister's husband. Mia Farrow is credibly saintly as the wife who senses that her husband is becoming remote, and the talented Wiest has her best movie role to date, as a woman who is getting somewhat panicky about her inability to find fulfillment.

Although Hannah is Woody Allen's most serious movie since Interiors, there's a sense of ease and contentment to it that has never been so prominent in Allen's work before. Actually, it was there in some of his earlier, funnier movies, but those were strictly comedies, and Allen deliberately wasn't seeing things whole. Not that he has lost any of his sense of life's dissatisfactions and absurdities. He's still complaining that human existence is too short and that in the larger view it doesn't amount to much. Hannah continues the fears of the Brooklyn kid in Annie Hall who was obsessed with the thought that the universe is still expanding, due for inevitable collapse, "So what's the point?"

But he now is able simultaneously to accept and mock that idea, and he celebrates the happiness, however momentary, of individual lives. The happy ending of Hannah and Her Sisters, which takes us full circle to a Thanksgiving dinner that is both like and unlike the one that starts the picture, is one of the most quietly joyous moments in recent movies.