What strikes you most about "Hannah and Her Sisters," Woody Allen's 14th film, is its limberness -- the extraordinary leaps it makes, with the ease of Astaire, between tragedy and comedy, miracles and missed connections. It's an encyclopedia of the emotions of ordinary life, not a movie so much as a prayer, if prayers could be so funny and tortured and full of love.
The milieu is, once again, New York; the story as simple as boy meets girl, only multiplied by seven and with a dollop of metaphysics added. The movie begins (and ends) at a Thanksgiving at the home of Hannah (Mia Farrow), who's mostly given up her career as an actress to be with her children and husband Elliot (Michael Caine), a financial adviser for rock stars. Elliot, meanwhile, spends the evening mooning over Hannah's younger sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey), whose lover Frederick, a dyspeptic, antisocial artist (Max Von Sydow), has stayed at home. The third sister, Holly (Diane Wiest), is also an actress -- though, unlike Hannah, unsuccessful in both career and love.
Cut to Mickey (Woody Allen), Hannah's ex-husband, a writer for a "Saturday Night Live"-style show and a sedulous hypochondriac. Suspecting a loss of hearing in his right ear, he races off to the doctor, who orders more tests, which make him more suspicious still; phoning yet another doctor, he's told that, while it's probably nothing, it could be a brain tumor.
These early scenes are a model of economy -- in a few swift strokes Allen introduces the overall narrative structure of "Hannah" (a kind of geodesic dome of interlocking love triangles) and establishes the characters with brief hooks (Holly, for example, needs to borrow money from Hannah) that will be deepened later. And among these characters, Allen finds two -- Holly and Mickey -- who provide the movie with its thematic frame: one trying to find her niche in life, the other trying to find his niche in the universe.
Allen's screenplay is remarkably deft in managing a cast of nine without a hint of strain, and stunning, as always with Allen, in the fluidity of its comic invention. Who else could get away with comparing a bad night on the town to the Nuremberg trials? Most of the comedy, though, stems not from wordplay, but from character -- if Allen is quick in establishing characters, he's quicker still in mining them for comedy, and the ore is laughter, and something more.
Consider the scene in which Elliot persuades a rock star client, Dusty (Daniel Stern), to buy one of Frederick's paintings. In one stroke, you understand Dusty -- he looks like a Dusty, and his idea of art is "something big" that will fit his decorator's color scheme. But Dusty is, after all, a subsidiary character -- Allen quickly uses him to satirize Frederick, whose booming response is, characteristically, out of proportion to the provocation. All the while the real business of the scene -- the continuing seduction between Elliot and Lee -- goes on in the interstices.
Most central among the characters is Allen himself. Mickey is the now familiar Allen hero -- neurotic, obsessed with death, rational to the point of irrationality -- but what's continually surprising is that, however familiar, that hero never seems stale. Allen has a relationship with his audience that is unique among American filmmakers, and "Hannah" is pervaded by his security in that relationship -- there's an intimacy about it, an air of shared secrets (when you see longtime collaborator Tony Roberts in a brief cameo, riding through Beverly Hills with a Walkman, it's an automatic laugh).
Allen's honed comic timing, his stutter-and-whine, remains peerless, but the sharp edge is gone from his signature nose, his eyes and mouth are fuzzier -- it's as if his face is crumbling. An engaging softness has crept into his persona. Structurally, Allen's character enjoys a privileged position in the movie -- the flashback sequences, for example, are all in his mind, as are most of the interior monologues. But more than ever before, he's able to relinquish the spotlight to others, quite literally -- cinematographer Carlo Di Palma creates islands of white light that punch the faces of Hannah and her sisters out of the background.
And the emotional center of the movie is not Mickey, but Dianne Wiest's Holly, upstaged by the world. Wiest has a Pagliacci face, narrow eyes like a boxer's after a beating, teetering on the verge of tears. It's a face that hasn't accommodated to life, and that's what's beautiful and sad about Holly -- she resists the second-rate happiness the world offers. Wiest talks vaporously, great clouds of words spilling out of her: a smoke screen to keep life at arm's length.
Like all of Allen's movies, "Hannah" is impeccably cast (by Juliet Taylor); and because it's such an ensemble piece, he's taken particular care in tuning the ensemble. Some of Allen's dialogue, for example, fits strangely in Caine's mouth; but the ravishing Hershey isn't a typical Allen actress, either, and Caine's oddity seems to support her. They're given their own corner of the movie. Farrow, who has never looked more beautiful, has also never dug into the psychology of a beautiful woman more trenchantly; in close-up, she's like Joan of Arc. Von Sydow jumps into his role with stentorian brio (particularly a jeremiad about modern culture that distills all of "Stardust Memories" into a minute). And Maureen O'Sullivan (Farrow's real mother) and the late Lloyd Nolan turn in colorful supporting performances as the theatrical couple who fathered the three sisters.
"Hannah" continues Allen's love affair with New York, the charm of the old apartments on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, Bobby Short in the Cafe Carlyle, the scalloped spire of the Chrysler Building. Di Palma has lit the movie tastefully, but the work lacks the overall design of Allen's longtime collaborator, Gordon Willis. Unlike "Manhattan," it's not the visual locations that give you the sense of place, but the music: hot, driving Basie stomps, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter and Jimmy Van Heusen. This is Allen's New York, '40s New York, Tin Pan Alley and the jazz clubs that hardly exist anymore, except in the imagination.
And what "Hannah and Her Sisters" is about, in the end, is both the triumph and liabilities of the imagination. Mickey's hypochondria is, in a way, a metaphor for what's wrong with all these characters; they're always imagining problems, in the culture, in their spouses, in their sisters, in their bodies. In "Hannah," happiness is just around the corner, but that's the last place anyone would look for it.
But the answer, too, lies in the imagination, in finding a way to imagine yourself, and in finding someone to share that vision. And in the solace of art -- not just high art. In a moment of despondency, Mickey wanders into a Marx Brothers movie at the Metro, and as he watches Groucho, Harpo and Chico cavort through "Duck Soup," he realizes that life isn't so bad after all. Allen, who has long struggled with his art, is, at least for a time, making peace with it; rarely has a movie come so close to breaking your heart, only to end up warming it. When the movie ends in a Thanksgiving embrace, you feel as though you're right in the middle of it.
Hannah and Her Sisters, opening today at the Circle Avalon and Circle Dupont, is rated PG-13 and contains some profanity and sexual themes.