For many years, and without adjustments made for inflation, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) was Woody Allen’s most financially successful comedy. Personally, I place about as much faith in box office numbers as I do in Oscar tallies – that is to say, none. Popular films are just that – popular. Some carry their initial flourish into the annals of history. Others simply fade into obscurity once the zeitgeist of clever marketing has cooled. A film’s financial successful is also often the result of audience anticipation. As example, the $212,222,025 gross on Raiders of the Lost Ark was eclipsed by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s $ 317,101,119, mostly due to the hype and buzz generated for another installment in the series. But you would be hard pressed to find someone claiming Crystal Skull is a better movie than Raiders.
Few movies are as charmingly dishonest about life, love and the search for the perfect religion as Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters; yet another quirky excursion into the fruitful imagination and socio-psychoanalytical mindset of its creator. Allen, who has always been at the cutting edge of esoteric reflections on contemporary American society, delves deeply herein into the fundamentally flawed relationships of a triage of sisters: the ever-stable/ever-loyal caregiver – Hannah (Mia Farrow), free-spirited flirt, Lee (Barbara Hershey) and neurotic middle-aged scatterbrain, Holly (Diane Wiest).
Yet Hannah and Her Sisters is middling Woody Allen at best – undeniably amusing, but never quite rivaling his masterworks; Annie Hall (1978) and Manhattan (1980). Allen’s intermingling of three separate narrative arcs lacks his ingeniousness for integration: Allen’s clever-cleverness infrequently becoming obvious for its own sake. There’s nothing inherently misguided about Hannah and Her Sisters, and yet nothing quite outstanding either. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, the film seems an obvious extension of the Alvi Singer character from Annie Hall – whatever became of that obsessively overanxious and slightly cantankerous playwright, toiling with great pains and even greater panged expressions over having to debase his art to peddling it to the lowest common denominator as crass commercialism. All well and good, except that Allen’s Mickey Sachs in Hannah and Her Sisters is hardly the focus of the story. That’s a problem, as is Hannah herself (Mia Farrow); the least interesting member of this familial sisterhood.
Our story begins on Thanksgiving, at a cozy gathering of friends and family that include Hannah, her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine) sisters Lee and Holly, and their parents, Norma (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Evan (Lloyd Nolen) as well as a good friend, April (Carrie Fisher). Norma and Evan are a couple of old time hams – once the toast of Broadway – now comfortable in their old age and singing songs from the time-honored repertoires of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Holly and April have decided to go into a catering business together, despite Hannah being the one with the culinary prowess. Hannah’s pursuits, however, are more cerebral. She has just finished a successful off Broadway run of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – a role her mother once played on the stage. Having sewed these artistic oats, Hannah is now content to return to domesticity with Elliot.
Unfortunately for Hannah, Elliot has designs on Lee, presently living with Frederick (Max von Sydow); a cranky painter, existing mostly in a social vacuum of his own design, with a heightened state of depression. Elliot is determined to seduce Lee, finagling an audience between Frederick and one of his writer buddies (John Turturro) under the rouse that perhaps Frederick will be able to sell a few of his canvasses. The boys don’t hit it off, but Elliot does manage to make his intentions clear to Lee. She is at first frightened, and then confused, but nevertheless intrigued enough to begin an affair with Elliot at the St. Regis Hotel shortly thereafter.
In the meantime, Holly has tapped Hannah for $2000 to start the Stanislavski Catering Company with April. Their first gig is a success. The girls are introduced to David (Sam Waterston) an architect who wastes no time taking Holly and April on a whirlwind tour of Manhattan’s finer architectural achievements. Holly is instantly smitten with David. But her insecurities get the better of her, affording April the opportunity to pursue David for herself.
Hannah sincerely worries about Holly – a recovering drug addict with a fragile ego perpetually and precariously primed for a relapse. But Holly is much stronger than either Hannah or Lee gives her credit. After dissolving their catering partnership over David, Holly dabbles in several flawed career aspirations before becoming a writer. Her first manuscript is met with great enthusiasm by Mickey (Woody Allen); a TV producer/writer whom Holly once shared an utterly disastrous blind date while still in her gay ol’ Bohemian days of snorting cocaine and partying with punk rockers half her age.
Hannah’s former husband, Mickey has had a recent health scare after complaining to Dr. Grey (Fred Melamed) about a slight loss of hearing in his right ear. A CAT scan reveals a gray blotch on the brain that sends Mickey’s obsessive fear into overdrive. In flashback we discover that Mickey and Hannah were told they could never have children and that the flaw was in Mickey’s low sperm count. Mickey and Hannah then turned to his former creative partner, Norman (Tony Roberts) to provide them with a necessary sample for Hannah’s artificial insemination. After some consternation, Norman complied. But he thereafter dissolved their partnership and moved to Los Angeles where, so we are told, he has since become a very wealthy television producer.
After some preliminary tests, doctors concur that the blotch on Mickey’s brain is benign – possibly a shadow or some other anomaly that he has absolutely nothing to worry about. But Mickey has had an epiphany of sorts. Desperate for answers to life’s most perplexing questions, Mickey briefly toys with religious conversion, first to Catholicism, then Krishna Consciousness. After a laughably botched suicide attempt, a forlorn Mickey experiences a reawakening of his desire for life while attending a screening of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Shortly thereafter he makes a conscious effort to get reacquainted with Holly inside a seedy record store. Now clean and sober, she appreciates Mickey’s sense of humor much more. The two strike up a friendship that blossoms into romance and are eventually married.
Lee ends her affair with Elliot and goes back to school where she meets a professor (Ivan Kronenfeld) who becomes her lover and later, her husband. Meanwhile, Elliot discovers how much he loves his wife. Although Hannah has infrequently suspected that something had changed in their marital relationship, she is reassured of Elliot’s enduring affections – if not his fidelity – when he decides to rekindle the passion they once shared for one another. In the final moments of the film, Mickey is seen attending yet another Thanksgiving celebration with Hannah and her sisters. Holly, who has since become a successful writer arrives late to the dinner and informs Mickey that she is pregnant with their child.
Hannah and Her Sisters is rather obviously inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) with parallels between both movies extending to each dramatic arc; the close knit theatrical family’s evolution through times of peace and conflict over three consecutive years, and, pigeon-holed around a particular holiday (Christmas in Bergman’s movie; Thanksgiving in Allen’s). The penultimate scene where Mickey’s reflection suddenly appears from behind Holly is a direct rip off of Bergman’s reference to the bishop’s apparition in his film.
An old adage claims that to steal from one is plagiarism but to steal from many is research. Yet I’m not entirely certain if the adage holds true when the artist – in this case Woody Allen – is borrowing from himself. Allen’s craftsmanship as a film maker on Hannah and Her Sisters never achieves a level of originality found elsewhere in his canon: from Annie Hall to Manhattan, or even The Purple Rose of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose. There are some charming vignettes to be sure, for no movie made by Woody Allen is ever an out and out flop. But the story becomes fragmented by Allen’s inability to bring his various narrative threads together until very near the end. Regrettably, by then his denouement seems oddly contrived, stitched together to mimic narrative cohesion without actually achieving it.
Allen’s Mickey Sachs is a clumsy edition to the story. He is Hannah’s ex and Holly’s soon to be husband. In Manhattan, Allen also played the ex, to Meryl Streep’s Jill and her new lesbian lover. However, Jill was never the focus of that film. Presumably, Hannah is the focus of this movie (after all, the title is 'Hannah' and 'Her Sisters'), except that she is not the focus at all. The central narratives revolve around Elliot and Lee, and Holly and Mickey.
Padding out the rest of the cast with such luminaries as Mia Farrow, Max von Sydow and Carrie Fisher, with cameos by Tony Roberts and Sam Waterston, only serves to dilute the narrative further. Their inherent celebrity cache raises the audience’s level of expectation that they will have more participation within the story than they ultimately do in the finished film. Carrie Fisher in particular is utterly wasted as April – a gal we barely see – and yet Fisher is fourth billed in the credits, above Barbara Hershey who clearly has the more plum role.
And then there is the rather awkward way Woody Allen recycles the non-linear narrative structure from his previous hits, herein into obscure and disassociated vignettes. Take, for example the entirely unexpected departure that has Hannah acting as an intermediary between her two drunken parents – each dredging up the other’s past infidelities and current indiscretions. This scene has its counterpoint later on when Mickey confronts his mother and father about his decision to denounce Judaism for an alternative religion. Both scenes are genuinely affecting and quite humorous in and of themselves. Yet neither enriches the main plot or even involves the main characters in our story. We don’t understand Hannah or Mickey more because of these scenes; their cause and effect to whatever else is going on around them, marginal at best. The prerequisite thirty-second laugh is still there, yet utterly lacking interconnection.
In the end, watching Hannah and Her Sisters is very much like being exposed to little gems inside the impenetrable artistic clutter that is Woody Allen’s creative mind. However, unlike the previously mentioned treasures in Allen’s cinematic trove, in Hannah and Her Sisters Allen seems less selective about which gems to share – the opportunity to simply rummage through the lot devolves into a claptrap where the pieces quite simply do not fit as neatly – or even as fascinatingly - as they ought. While one may argue that this is Allen’s intention from the get go, the overall impression remains awkward and unfulfilling. Hannah and Her Sisters may be thought-provoking – but rarely does it rise above the commonplace.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is single layered with inconsistently rendered film grain. In some scenes it’s practically nonexistent, and in others it is so heavy that it threatens to break apart fine detail in background information. There’s just no happy medium; likely the result of using old digital files merely bumped to a 1080p signal. Colors are muddy and unrefined. Flesh tones infrequently veer toward that unattractive ‘piggy pink’ and never attain a completely natural texture. Fine detail is wanting throughout this entire presentation. Minor hints of edge enhancement are also present. The DTS mono audio is adequate and in keeping with Allen’s own minimalist approach to film making. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Not recommended. Another disappointing effort from Fox – one of many, I might add.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)