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Jay Carr on ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’: A review, and a tribute

Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Dianne Wiest in “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Orion Pictures

In honor of former Globe film critic Jay Carr, who died in May, the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Coolidge Corner Theatre are presenting a screening of one of Carr’s favorite films, “Hannah and Her Sisters,” at 7 p.m. on Monday at the Coolidge. Globe film critic Ty Burr will introduce the film, part of the theater’s “Big Screen Classics” series. Here’s Carr ’s review, which originally ran on Feb. 7, 1986.

“God, she’s beautiful,” Michael Caine says in a voice-over at a party, staring at his sister-in-law, Barbara Hershey. In that opening moment of Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” we feel instinctively that the film is special, has wings. We sense the beginnings of Caine’s obsessive, illicit fixation. We’re drawn into the gravitational field of Hershey’s allure. And here’s how we know we’re in for a treat, even before the laughs begin: We see Mia Farrow, as the model wife (Caine’s) and Thanksgiving dinner-cooking earth mother to the whole clan, and can feel the way her generosity and perfection drive her sisters and errant husband up the wall.


For the next hour and 40 minutes, as the film moves through two years and three Thanksgiving dinners cooked by Farrow, “Hannah and Her Sisters” keeps expanding in fresh, funny, rueful, honest, touching ways. It’s one of the best films of the new year, and one of Allen’s best as well. With love and fluency, it zeroes in on the fragmented lives of the sisters and their angst-ridden men. But it isn’t cold and solemn, like “Interiors.” Allen even kids his former need to make a Bergman movie by having Max Von Sydow show up as the dour, stifling, condescending Scandinavian lover Hershey knows she must ditch. And what sets its amorous scamperings apart from those of the much darker “Manhattan” is the fact that its characters aren’t as isolated. For better or worse, they’re all connected, and Allen makes us feel it’s better.

“Hannah and Her Sisters” is, in short, as funny as any Allen film and more openly compassionate. It’s as if he’s reconciled himself to human imperfection and limits, and, like a latter-day Candide, is content to make his own garden grow. Also, Allen for the first time has cast himself in a supporting role. In his last film, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” he didn’t appear at all. Obviously, he’s been thinking about how best to incorporate himself into his films. He couldn’t go on playing the schlep who backs into heroism and gets the girl. There was no way to reconcile that persona with the high opinion of himself that began to surface in such films as “Sleeper” and even “Annie Hall.” “Hannah and Her Sisters” is more modest, generous, relaxed, compassionate, true to life than his previous movies.


Here, Allen divides in two the role he played in the past. Caine plays the man agonizing over an impossible love, courting his sister-in-law with e.e. cummings, gassing on about volcanic love while fearing that his wife will learn of his infidelity. Caine handles both pursuit and guilt lightly, his best work in years. Amazingly, he even begins resembling Allen physically as the film proceeds. Allen, meanwhile, shows up as Farrow’s ex-husband, a fretful TV producer who imagines a headache into a brain tumor, and briefly, hysterically, converts from Judaism to Catholicism. Mostly, he’s comic relief, but at the end he’s the one who voices the upfront benevolence in the new Woody Allen.


If Farrow’s present husband is involved with one sister, her ex takes up with the other one, Dianne Wiest, the definitive arty neurotic whose blurry, about-to-dissolve face has never been better deployed. Gabby, vulnerable, brittle, a shade self-destructive, she’s a cinch for a best supporting actress nomination in next year’s Oscars. Allen stops playing the fool long enough to realize that if there is no immediately discernible God, then the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup” will do. Having found salvation in comedy, he and Wiest, whose compulsive coke-snorting hilariously wrecks their first date, are able to lighten up. They’re more than nut cases who have found each other. She’s becoming saner; he’s becoming more accepting. He reminds her that “the heart is a resilient little muscle,” to say nothing of a wayward one. That’s the film’s message, insofar as it has one. It’s coming from a mellower Woody Allen than the one who gave us “Interiors” and “Manhattan.”

In fact, you need the fingers of both hands to count the delights in “Hannah.” Let’s start with Allen’s insouciant nose-thumbing at assertions that he’s a novelist who wandered into the wrong art form. Stylistically, he uses literary devices as metaphors for the characters’ fragmented lives; he gives them equal weight by dividing his film into chapters with title cards. Voice-overs feed the film’s novelistic sensibility, too.


The acting, far from being capsized by the film’s short takes, is perfection. In their different ways, Hershey, Wiest, and Farrow shine as the latter-day Chekhovian sisters, especially in a classic tension-ridden lunch scene. Maureen O’Sullivan (Farrow’s real mother) plays her fictional mother here, an aging actress given to drink and married to another showbiz vet, the late Lloyd Nolan. He plays a crabby character, but Allen’s familial, reconciling impulse is too strong to allow any souring (the film uses seven of Farrow’s eight real-life children, also her rambling West Side apartment). “Hannah and Her Sisters” is a valentine, not only to New York and its great buildings and old show tunes — Allen has done a number of those — but to the people who keep it, and him, humming. It’s the film in which everything seems to come together for Woody Allen.

Related coverage:

- Obituary: Jay Carr, 77; Globe film critic known for prolific writing, kindness