Many families have that perfect one that the rest of the family balances around. Here, that is Hannah (Mia Farrow), the successful actress turned happy stay-at-home mom. When her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine) falls in love with her sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey), things begin to shift. The relationship between Elliot and Lee is awkward and must be kept hidden, neither one can stand the thought of hurting Hannah, who has been nothing but gracious. Then there is Mickey (Woody Allen), Hannah’s hypochondriac ex husband, who finds himself confronting some big fears after a medical scare. Eventually, he starts seeing Hannah’s other sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest), who is trying to become an actress or writer or whatever she decides to focus on at the moment. All these affairs, dramas and big thoughts rise and fall over two years between Thanksgivings.
The film is broken into chapters where one character narrates at times with their inner thoughts. We understand each character’s motivations and feelings more this way, since much of what they are thinking are things that cannot be said. With Elliot, we hear his love for Lee. With Lee, she wonders why Elliot flirts with her and if his marriage is alright. With Mickey, his philosophical wonders and worries on life and death.
Caine gives his first Oscar winning performance as Elliot. He portrays Elliot’s love for Lee somewhere too earnest to be considered simple lust. The way he can fun for blocks just to “accidentally” run into Lee is endearing. When his biggest move is to give her books and specific poems to read, it’s charming in an awkward way. Unfortunately, Caine decided not to attend the Academy Awards that year, afraid that he would just lose a fourth time. Also, those giant glasses and wavy hair of the mid eighties were not his best look.
Most interesting to me was Woody Allen’s character, Mickey, who does some of the most honest and entertaining soul searching I’ve ever seen on film. After his brain tumor scare, he begins to see things half empty and realizes that one day he will be in a emanate death situation. He begins seeking out different religious and philosophical ideas, even telling his Jewish parents that he’s considering converting to Catholicism. Through Mickey’s worrying and pondering of the unknown, we get a good little parable about simply enjoying life and letting yourself be part of the experience. Explaining these ideas during a Marx Brother’s film is a real stroke of genius.
The story is not set up like most films, but more like a novel exploring these people in little episodes of their lives as they intermingle. Though there are some great laughs, it is not a comedy. There is too much unsatisfied longing and heavy pondering about the uncertainties in life for that. Nonetheless, Hannah and Her Sisters is a satisfying film with passionate, fleshed out characters that we can relate to, hurt with and celebrate their little moments in life. When Elliot confesses his love for Lee, we are shocked alongside Lee, but feel proud of Elliot. How liberating it must be to just go for it, we become a little jealous of his unabashed bravery. With only one guaranteed go around in this life, might as well take some chances on happiness.
“For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom, I can’t fathom my own heart.”