I hadn't seen this 1986 Woody Allen movie in years, but when it was on TV the other night I watched it again and was very pleasantly surprised. It has the hallmarks of Allen's best movies: gorgeous shots of Manhattan, an excellent cast, witty dialogue, complicated characters, beautiful book-filled apartments, handsome tweeds and corduroys - all made even better by one thing this filmmaker doesn't always treat us to: a happy ending. I'm not generally a fan of voice-overs, but they work well in this movie, giving us amusing true-to-life insights into the thoughts of the characters.
The story begins at Thanksgiving dinner at the house of Hannah (Mia Farrow) and ends the same night two years later. Hannah is a successful actor, wife, mother, daughter and sister who makes it her mission to succeed at everything and ask for nothing. Among her dinner guests are her sisters, Holly (Dianne Wiest) and Lee (Barbara Hershey). Hannah's husband Elliot (Michael Caine) is infatuated with Lee; she lives with the much-older Frederick (Max von Sydow), a reclusive artist, but is attracted to Elliot as well. When Elliot pursues her, Lee succumbs to his charms (such as they are: it's remarkable how almost everyone in this movie could walk down the street today and pass unnoticed, except for Caine, who sports an over-the-ears haircut, Huggy Bear coat, and huge glasses). They begin an affair, unbeknownst to Hannah.
Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Allen) is a successful television comedy producer whose hypochondria is abetted by the possibility that he has a brain tumour. When the CAT scan comes up negative, he feels a moment of pure joy which quickly turns to despair as he faces the fact that one day he will die ("You're just realizing that now?" asks his assistant Gail (Julie Kavner) incredulously). Apparently so. Searching for meaning and comfort, he quits his job and decides to become a Catholic, bringing home a crucifix, a Bible, a loaf of Wonder bread, and a jar of mayonnaise as his religious props, much to his parents' despair. When that religion fails to "take", he flirts briefly with the idea of becoming a Hare Krishna before realizing that he would never shave his head and put on robes.
Meanwhile, Holly continues to try to find a path in life. When the movie opens she's an aspiring actress who makes ends meet through a catering business with pal April (Carrie Fisher). The two are wooed by the same married architect David (Sam Waterston), who takes them on a memorable drive around Manhattan viewing architectural gems. Holly seems destined for failure, however, and it's no suprise when David settles on April; by the time of the next Thanksgiving dinner the David and April are an item and Holly is bitter and directionless. At a lunch with the three sisters Holly announces she's going to take up writing. Hannah will pick up the tab for Holly's time away from work, as always, but her support is only financial, not emotional. Lee, meanwhile, is agonizing over whether to break up with Elliot, who, it's becoming clear, will never leave Hannah. This is painful but memorable scene shows the sisters trying to communicate in an adult way, and failing miserably.
One of the funniest scenes in the movie is a flashback to a date between Holly and Mickey; Holly takes him to a punk club where he wears the most pained expression imaginable as she snorts cocaine and bops. When they meet again years later they laugh about that worst date of their lives, both apologizing for their role in making it even worse than it had to be.
Several of Farrow's family members are in this movie, including her real-life mother (Maureen O'Sullivan) playing her on-screen mother, and a number of her children, including the one now married to Woody Allen, Soon-Yi Previn.
Michael Caine and Diane Wiest both earned their first Oscars for their supporting performances, and Allen went home with a golden boy for the best screenplay. Highly recommended.