Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
I'd like to classify Woody Allen's filmography into two categories: the first one being those wherein he or his actor stars as the stereotypical Allen protagonist, and the second one being those that are completely devoid of any manifestation of this neurotic Allen stereotype. The categorization seems unfair as Allen's artistry is far-reaching enough that boxing them into categories belittles the director's creativity. But I feel comfortable with the categories and it makes reviewing his films a lot easier. For example, I can say that Annie Hall (1977) is a masterpiece of the first category, and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), is the masterpiece of the second category.
Then comes Hannah and Her Sisters, which muddles the categorization completely. The film has a Woody Allen protagonist, although it doesn't center on that character's antics. The film mostly tackles the lives of three sisters and their men, one of which is the Allen stereotype, who enter and re-enter each other's lives like molecules drifting in space only to bump into each other, and then separate, with electric consequences. Hannah and Her Sisters completely ruins my categorization technique as it is without a doubt, an Allen masterpiece, but as to which category I'd sneak it in, I wouldn't know, since the Allen protagonist is one of the terrific elements of the film, but the film as a whole, is wonderful in itself.
Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the eldest of three sisters. Holly (Diane Wiest) is the middle child who is both rebellious yet is always seeking approval from her sisters and the people surrounding her. Lee (Barbara Hershey) is the youngest whose only aim is to please those who are always guiding her. Hannah is married to Elliot (Michael Caine), who secretly longs for Lee, the girlfriend of art snob and social recluse Frederick (Max von Sydow). Hannah's ex-husband is television producer Mickey Sachs (Woody Allen), a hypochondriac who thinks he has cancer and is now re-examining his life choices, including his lack of religion, his professional career, and his relationships. Holly, a former coke addict and struggling actress-turned-caterer meets a dreamy architect in one of her catering jobs. However, the architect is snatched by her best friend, and business partner April (Carrie Fisher), leaving Holly's ego bruised.
The screenplay is probably the most complex Allen has ever written. It features a number of three dimensional characters who interact with each other with real natural consequences, despite the typical scenarios Allen has created for them. Interestingly, despite some instances wherein Allen's own character would jump out of context with his typical razorsharp wit and comedic self-loathing, the typical Allen protagonist doesn't come off as inert or out-of-place but mixes and meshes with the rest of the characters. His quest to find a justification for living through organized religion is both humorous and actually quite touching: a perfect affirmation on life by someone like Allen whose cynicism and literary expertise dominate his writing, leaving humanism behind. The sisters' personalities are complete and psycho-analytically taut, if we completely base it on Freud's theories.
One understands why Holly is both dependent, rebellious and seemingly always in the verge of discovery since she is a middle child. And there is Lee whose inability to be without a mentor is understandable as a need to find identity. Everyone loves Hannah, especially since their parents have praised her to the heavens. She's depicted as a perfect being: caring, cool and calm in the face of adveristy, able to be good friends with an ex-husband, successful in both her previous profession and her domestic affairs. She's the quintessential eldest daughter.
It is the men who disorganize, and in a way, free the sisters from the preconceived psychological stereotypes. Mickey affirms Holly's ambition, thus finding both merit and love and forever disattaching herself from dependency. Elliot forces, through emotional leverage, Lee to cheat on Frederick thus freeing her from an unromantic mentor-student relationship that she by herself cannot escape from. The turn-of-events between Holly's self-discovery and Lee's freedom from Frederick causes Hannah to be free from her sisters and finally just become a wife to her Elliot and a mother to her children from her previous marriage. All those complicated characters and plot manipulations harmonize in a beautifully conceived ending that is both a proof that Allen is a filmmaker and that Allen's blurting out of his philosophical and aesthetic theories through his self-depreciating character doesn't remain in theory, but also in practice, though most of the time, his philosophical musings seem repetitive to be of any merit.