Movie Review: SLEEPER and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS Find Woody Allen at the Peak of His Powers

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It’s fitting that MGM has released Blu-rays of Sleeper and Hannah and Her Sisters on the same date, given that the films represent Woody Allen working at the (twin) peaks of his powers.  Here’s the thing: most filmmakers just get to play in one sandbox.  You’re the comedy guy, the blockbuster guy, the thriller guy, etc.  Allen wears two hats – the comedy and the drama ones – and when he’s at his best, he does both genres flawlessly.

We’ll start with Sleeper, considering its placement in Allen’s oeuvre; released in 1973, Sleeper is the best of his “earlier, funnier” pictures.  Far more technically polished than Bananas and lacking the tentative emotional resonance of Love and Death (which helped pave the way for his Academy Award-winning dramedies Annie Hall and Manhattan), Sleeper is a perfect comedy machine, engineered for one purpose: to make people laugh.  In many ways, it’s the best Buster Keaton film never made (and in sound, to boot).  Keaton mined so much humor from throwing his iconic Stone Face persona into dramatically absurd situations (Keaton as a riverboat captain; Keaton as a boxer; Keaton as a Civil War hero), and Allen follows by example.  By 1973, he had fully established his own comic identity – literate, anxious, absurd – through films like Take the Money and Run and his successful stand-up and talk-show appearances, and he used the public’s perception of this screen/stage persona to fuel Sleeper‘s brilliant hook: what if Aldous Huxley made Woody Allen the star of Brave New World?

It’s an irresistible setup, as Allen’s nebbish intellectual finds himself cryogenically revived in the year 2173 and loosed in a series of delirious comic setpieces: Allen’s failed attempt at using a jetpack to escape the authorities; his bespectacled masquerade as a robot servant that ends with him beating a pudding monster to death and fondling a futuristic sex ball; his bumbling attempt to lead a revolt against the future’s draconian, tyrannical…nose.

This is silly for silly’s sake (and the ragtime score only enhances the movie’s funhouse kick), but it’s also shot, performed, and edited for maximum comic impact.  Of course, Allen doesn’t deserve all the credit; as she is oft to do, his leading lady Diane Keaton handily walks away with the picture, playing Allen’s endearingly prissy love interest.  As such, you get two great comic tastes for the price of one: Buster Keaton-esque physical comedy and the Tracy-&-Hepburn bickering that Allen and Keaton share.

Flash-forward thirteen years, and Allen had transitioned many of his creative impulses towards drama.  He hadn’t completely abandoned the zany whimsy of his Sleeper years – 1983’s Zelig feels like a big-screen version of one of his absurdist New Yorker pieces – but the bulk of his comedies (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose, and the lovely The Purple Rose of Cairo) had grown richer and deeper.  With 1978’s Interiors, he’d taken a stab at a full-fledged drama, but this sterile, Ingmar Bergman-inspired exercise lacked any semblance of warmth or wit that might have made it palatable.

Hannah and Her Sisters got the balance exactly right.  The story of three very different sisters (Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Dianne Wiest) negotiating their way through various personal intrigues, the film finds Allen in his most sober, reflective mood since Interiors; no matter how trivial or bourgeois Hannah and her sisters seem, Allen respects their troubles, sketching them with the precision of a tale by Chekhov or Tolstoy.

The conflicts nest inside one another like a Russian Doll.  Hannah (Farrow), the responsible sibling, is married to Elliot (Michael Caine, whose work here netted him a Best Supporting Actor award), who loves Hannah but is sexually obsessed with Hannah’s sister Lee (Hershey), a free-spirited artist trying to find the courage to leave her much older lover Frederick (Bergman’s old muse, Max von Sydow); Holly (Wiest), the third sister, then uses these entanglements to write a screenplay as a means of both distancing herself from her two more accomplished siblings as well as rebounding from a disastrous love triangle between herself, her best friend (Carrie Fisher), and a sensitive architect (Sam Waterston).

None of these tales grows stagnant because of how deftly Allen moves between the separate vignettes; if nothing else, his storytelling instincts place Hannah and Her Sisters one up on Interiors, which placed us uncomfortably close to its unsympathetic protagonists and never gave us space to breathe.  There’s an additional bonus, too: unlike Interiors, Allen leavens the drama with a healthy dollop of comedy.  Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan are wonderful as Hannah, Lee, and Holly’s actor parents, who squabble and flirt like seasoned hams, and Allen himself contributes a delightful turn as Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey, a depressed hypochondriac searching for some sort of spiritual guidance; religion fails him, but then he finds true salvation in the most unlikely of places.

The different elements fit together so well; Allen’s work on Hannah and Her Sisters is as confident and assured as it was on…well, on Sleeper.  These are two of his best films.

MGM’s respective Blu-rays look great; even the forty-year-old Sleeper looks relatively sharp, and both films also get clean, monaural DTS-HD Master Audio tracks.

This is Woody Allen, so don’t expect much in terms of special features.  Each movie gets a trailer.

Still, it’s hard to care, seeing as how good Sleeper and Hannah and Her Sisters are.  These belong in the time capsule, folks.

Sleeper and Hannah and Her Sisters are now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE and HERE for their respective Amazon listings.

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