Poor Woody Allen. No matter how many classics he makes, so many will dismiss them as unfunny for not stacking up to the madcap absurdity as such early hits as Sleeper. What so many fail to understand, even among his supporters, is that Allen, though he came to prominence as a stand-up comic, is first and foremost a dramatist. The humor in his work typically comes from his neurosis, an incessant need to point out the flaws in real time and to obsess over them so much that the flaws seem trivial as he makes mountains out of molehills. He and his characters worry so much about the right thing to say that they end up revealing everything they seek to keep hidden, albeit in lofty, philosophical terms.
Such comedy overflows in Hannah and Her Sisters, a film with three major story arcs, all propelled by characters voicing their insecurities and doubts to the audience as they struggle to find some semblance of happiness in their lives. They let us in on their relationship woes, and their awkwardness around members of the opposite sex is funny because it is honest and not exaggerated past the point of believability. Voiceovers shift between typical narrations and internal monologues: in one marvelous scene, Allen's character, a hypochondriac, mulls over the news that a CT scan revealed a spot on his brain and slowly thinks himself into a panic.
Mickey (Allen) is Hannah's (Mia Farrow) ex-, though he's still on reasonable terms with both her and her new husband, Elliot (Michael Caine), whom Mickey likes because he too is under-confident. Hannah is the center of the film, not in the sense that she's the main character and she fuels the narrative but that she is the core about which the stories of others revolve.
Elliot, resentful of his wife's self-sufficiency and success -- she's an actress who just got excellent write-ups for her work in A Doll's House -- leads him to drift away, and soon he finds himself taken with Hannah's sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), who herself is in a failing relationship. Max von Sydow makes a memorable appearance as Lee's ex-, a reclusive artist who shut himself off from everything but Lee, which makes their breakup all the more painful. Caine's performance is surprisingly moving, considering he's engaging in an affair with his wife's sister because he resents how strong she is. He agonizes over how to end his marriage and wait a while before pursuing a real relationship with Lee, to the point of being incapable of thinking of anything else.
Hannah's other sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest) is everything that the level-headed Hannah is not: a recovering coke addict, she runs a catering company with her friend April (Carrie Fisher) while they both hope to land auditions for parts. Though they're friends, the two are always in competition with one another, especially when a smooth-talking, opera-loving guy meets them at a party and takes the two out on the town. She's fiscally reliant on Hannah, something her sister doesn't mind now that it's not going to disappear up Holly's nose but which Holly deeply regrets. Holly's constant failures have left her as neurotic and insular as any of Allen's characters, and she even mentions to Hannah that she, the person nicest to Holly, is the only one who can really make her feel bad about herself.
In contrast to these serious (though often funny) segments, Allen's Mickey provides chunks of comic relief. When that CT scan suggests that the hypochondriac may genuinely have a serious ailment, his internal conversations break into a frenzy, only for the doctors to confirm that nothing is wrong. Now, I often wonder why, in film, someone who loses his faith typically finds it restored after something terrible occurs, but Allen turns it on its head. Receiving miraculous news actually triggers an existential crisis, which leads him to seek religion even though he maintains there's no God. Hilariously, he attempts to convert to Catholicism and mentions their strong moral codes when at the start of the film he, the producer of a sketch comedy show, argues with Standards and Practices for wanting to air a bit about the child molestation charges brought against priests.
Allen practically pioneered the anti-rom-com with Annie Hall, that genre that seeks to actually display love honestly, which severely scales back the laughs to be had into the bitter, real sort that accompanies the pain of relationships. But there is a lighter note to Hannah and Her Sisters, one that might seem contrived in other films but fits naturally here because the characters grow organically. That's what makes Allen -- when he connects -- the most powerful writer in the industry. He can run from laughs to tears, absurdity to stone-faced drama so effortlessly within a single film
Before now, I'd rarely, if ever noticed, Allen's skill with a camera. Gentle tracking shots follow these characters as they pace slowly, mulling over their torment, and his Bergman worship is visible not only in his casting of von Sydow but in his static close-ups that ruminate over the actors' faces that perfectly match their internal dialogue. These shots add aesthetic warmth to this ultimately tender story, and Hannah and Her Sisters must surely rank as one of the director's finest efforts. It reminded me, as Duck Soup did Mickey, that there is something worth living for in this world, and it's art.