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Tim Grierson on “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the Best Thanksgiving Movie

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Photo: "Hannah and Her Sisters," courtesy Orion Pictures Corporation

Woody Allen's 1986 classic reminds our columnist about the joy and complexity of family during the holidays

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I was thinking about movies set around the holiday. Movies as different as the comedy “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and the dark suburban drama “The Ice Storm” come to mind, but for me “Hannah and Her Sisters” is the best of the bunch — even though Thanksgiving doesn’t seem to have much to do with the film.

This Oscar-winning 1986 film from writer-director Woody Allen takes place over the span of two years and three Thanksgivings. The movie opens on the first of those Thanksgivings, as Elliot (Michael Caine), who is married to the talented and beloved Hannah (Mia Farrow), is nursing a desperate, unrequited crush for her younger sister Lee (Barbara Hershey). There’s also a third sister, the baby of the family, Holly (Dianne Wiest), who can’t seem to ever pull her life together. Though maybe more cultured and successful than most, they feel like a pretty typical brood with all the love and madness and quiet regrets that are part of every family.

If for some reason you haven’t seen this wonderful comedy-drama, I’d rather not spoil anything else in the plot, but suffice it to say that Elliot decides to act on his feelings for Lee, while Hannah’s ex-husband, TV producer Mickey (Allen), is going through an existential crisis as he ponders mortality and the meaning of life — in a very funny way, of course. These seemingly disconnected plot strands come together over the next two years’ Thanksgiving meals.

As you can see, Thanksgiving serves mostly as a framing device in “Hannah and Her Sisters;” it’s not integral to the plot like it is in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” But as I’ve re-watched “Hannah” over the years, I’ve begun to appreciate the film as more than just a touching, hilarious look at a group of well-drawn characters but also as a reflection of the emotions that are stirred up by the holiday — specifically, the complexities of family and the very notion of what it means to be thankful.

Allen’s films have often examined the inner workings of families — “Interiors,” “Radio Days,” “Cassandra’s Dream” — but “Hannah and Her Sisters” does so with a compassion that allows us to see these people for all their faults but love them regardless. Though her name appears in the title, Hannah is less the central character in this story than she is the guiding light for everyone else in her family. Her parents adore her, her younger sisters envy her success as an actress and a mother, and her husband — although he’s contemplating having an affair — is in such awe of her that he feels that she doesn’t need him. But being the golden child of her family doesn’t make life easier for Hannah, who has to be the resilient glue that holds everything else around her together. Thanksgiving is one time every year that families meet up, which is tough for people who have difficult relationships with their siblings or parents. So it’s understandable why Allen might have chosen this particular holiday as a motif: It’s during the film’s three Thanksgivings when major revelations occur and new understandings about the characters develop.

Then there’s the film’s grappling with the idea of what Thanksgiving means. Beyond the turkey, stuffing and football games, the holiday is supposed to mark a time for all of us to be appreciative of the good things we have in our lives. (If you don’t like hanging out with your family, perhaps the one thing you’re appreciative of at that moment is that you’ll be away from them soon enough.) While “Hannah and Her Sisters” is about a lot of things — art, love, faith, death, the Marx brothers — gratitude wouldn’t seem to be a major theme. But from the right perspective, it absolutely is.

In different ways, all the characters are looking for happiness. Lee feels stymied in her relationship with her domineering older boyfriend (Max von Sydow), Elliot longs to be with Lee, Mickey wants answers to the mysteries of existence, Holly wants to stop floundering from one failed pursuit to another, and Hannah can’t figure out why her husband suddenly seems so distant. Allen’s movies tend toward melancholy endings that aren’t always happy — he’d rather be true to his complicated characters than force tidy resolutions on them — but “Hannah and Her Sisters” (despite its often clear-eyed view of human foibles) was a rare instance when he gave his characters a reprieve, allowing them contentment as the credits roll.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Allen has lamented that decision ever since. “I copped out a little on the film,” he once said, “I backed out a little at the end.” He added, “I tied it together at the end a little bit too neatly. [My character] should have been a little less happy at the end than I was.” Maybe, but the film’s happy endings aren’t exactly gumdrops and unicorns — they come from the characters, at one lucky moment in time, finally beginning to understand what they have in their lives that’s worthwhile. Often, Allen’s movies are about characters striving for things out of their reach that they think will give them fulfillment. In “Hannah and Her Sisters,” at that final Thanksgiving, they recognize that life is never perfect but that sometimes we can cobble together enough happiness to keep going. Whenever I watch the ending, I’m always overcome with a sense of gratitude — not just for the experience of watching a great movie but also for the realization that there are reasons to be thankful all around us, if only we’ll stop and appreciate them. And, really, isn’t that really what this holiday’s supposed to be about?

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