Since his movie-making and personal partnership with Mia Farrow, Woody Allen's view of white-bread America has become more and more that of the insider, the honorary family member. But there's a fine tension between mockery and sympathy, between angst-ridden Jew and pampered, neurotic WASP, that makes "Hannah and Her Sisters" (HBO cassette, Hi-Fi mono, $89.95) one of the richest, most resonant movies of Allen's career. With "Room With a View," it was the runaway critical favorite of 1986 and, allowing for a certain obscurity in some of the darker-tone scenes, transfers beautifully to video.
Its occasional longueurs and lapses into tendentiousness stick out only because of the extraordinary freshness and unpredictability of most of the scenes, and the canniness of Allen's understanding of the games people play in a world in which sex, art and showbiz are hopelessly, delightfully intertwined. The breathless opening love volleys between Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey in a Soho bookstore, and the scene in which a would-be writer (Dianne Wiest) finishes her screenplay and is greeted by the director (Allen) with cries of ecstasy -- these, not the pantings of missionary-position lovers, are orgasms, New York style.
Allen knows that his characters are a little too full of themselves, a little too tenderly (and trendily) proud of their addictions to be entirely charming. But we can't help loving them anyway. Dazzling in the showier roles (and deserving of their supporting Oscars) are Caine as a middle-aged lecher at his most fatuously self-deceiving, and Wiest, like Chekhov's Masha, never happier than when in lugubrious mourning for her life, though Max von Sydow, as a wonderfully joyless painter, gives her serious competition.
Then there's Hershey, having emerged from the ashes of Barbara Seagull, resplendently desirable as the still-childlike woman who drifts from mentor to mentor with the shining eyes of the sexiest and brightest pupil in the class. And there's Farrow as the talented, wholesome, all-around most infuriatingly generous member of the family, who is nevertheless not as whole as she seems, having had to resort to in-vitro technology to conceive the four children of her previous marriage to Allen.
Music and mood alternate to create a masterpiece of romantic disenchantment that unfolds in a deceptively casual, fugue-like arrangement of themes and counterpoints: The three sisters are the glorious centerpiece; Allen, the Greek chorus as comic relief and hypochondriacal kvetch; and at various family occasions, the parents (played by Maureen O'Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan) provide the bickering musical accompaniment for discordant lives united by rare moments of harmony.
"Hannah and Her Sisters" represents that broadening of the canvas and deepening of the chords that have made Allen's movies the most exciting body of work by anyone in recent years.
"You oughta be in Moscow," purred Warren Beatty to Diane Keaton in "Reds." She went. Within the context of that movie, it seemed an enticing thought. But would you really consider packing up the family for a week of sun and fun in beautiful downtown Mongolia? No?
Tell that to the Russian Travel Bureau. The agents (travel, not KGB) at the RTB have prepared a 23-minute videocassette travelogue to convince wary Westerners that Gorby's not kidding about glasnost. In fact, if you decide to book a tour of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev or any of the other smokin' Soviet resort spots, the Russians will refund the $17 purchase price of the tape.
Write the bureau at 225 E. 44th St., New York, N.Y. 10017, for further details. No need to include your phone number. They already know it.