Woody Allen’s classic comedy Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) is an unlikely funeral film, as no one actually dies. But it’s instructive about living and dying. Allen shines at his hypochondriac best as Mickey, who obsesses about death and whether there’s an afterlife.
Mickey is bothered by a ringing in his ear and undergoes numerous tests. He’s convinced he has a brain tumor. When it turns out to be nothing, he’s relieved, but experiences an existential crisis. He confides his fears to fellow producer Gail, played by Julie Kavner.
Mickey: “Do you realize what a thread we’re all hanging by?”
Gail: “Mickey, you’re off the hook. You should be celebrating.”
“Can you understand how meaningless everything is? Everything! I’m talking about our lives, the show, the whole world, it’s meaningless.”
“But you’re not dying.”
“No, I’m not dying now, but, but. You know, when I ran out of the hospital, I was so thrilled because they told me I was going to be all right. And I’m running down the street and suddenly I stop, ‘cause it hit me: Alright, I’m not going to go today, I’m okay; I’m not going to go tomorrow; but eventually, I’m going to be in that position.”
“You’re just realizing this now?”
“Well, I don’t realize it now, I know it all the time, but I manage to stick it in the back of my mind because it’s a very horrible thing to think about…”
He confides that he bought a rifle and was going to kill himself if it turned out he had a tumor. He decides that he has to get some answers as to the meaning of life and if there’s a God. He takes a leave of absence from his position as a TV show producer to find some answers.
This nice Jewish boy from New York visits a priest to explore converting to Catholicism. Mickey wants to believe in God, otherwise, he says, life is meaningless. His parents throw a fit.
“I thought that you’d be happy,” says Mickey. “I haven’t thought in God all my life and now I’m giving it serious thought.”
“But Catholicism, why not your own people?” asks his dad. Dad suggests becoming a Buddhist, and Mickey says that’s totally alien to him.
Mickey: “Look, you’re getting on in years, right. Aren’t you afraid of dying?”
Dad: “Why should I be afraid?”
“Because you won’t exist!”
“That thought doesn’t terrify you?”
“Who thinks about such nonsense? Now I’m alive. When I’m dead, I’ll be dead.”
“I don’t understand, aren’t you frightened?”
“Of what? I’ll be unconscious.”
“I know, but to never exist again?”
“How do you know?”
“It certainly doesn’t look promising!”
“Who knows what will be? I’ll either be unconscious or I won’t. If not, I’ll deal with it then…”
Mickey’s fear of dying and not existing drives him to explore Catholicism. The priest sends him home with a huge stack of books to study. He stops at a religious store and picks up a crucifix, a picture of the Virgin Mary, a loaf of Wonder Bread and a jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise.
Later in the film, the seasons have turned from winter to summer. Mickey asks a Hare Krishna in Central Park about their beliefs. He explained that he tried, but “Catholicism for me was die now, pay later.” He especially wanted to know about reincarnation.
Toward the end of the film, he is desperate for answers about God and what happens after you die. He almost shoots himself with his rifle, and the accidental discharge of the gun really shakes him up.
He wanders the Upper West Side, and goes into a theater to try to clear his thinking and put things into a rational perspective. He winds up watching a Marx Brothers film. As he explains to Hannah’s sister Holly:
“I started to feel, how can you even think of killing yourself? I mean, isn’t it so stupid? I mean, look at all the people up there on the screen, y’know, they’re real funny and…”
“And what if the worst is true? What if there’s no God and you only go around once and that’s it? Don’t you want to be part of the experience? Y’know, what the hell, it’s not all a drag and I’m thinking to myself, Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never going to get and just enjoy it while it lasts.”
“And y’know after, who knows. Maybe there is something, nobody really knows. I know ‘maybe’ is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And then I started to sit back and I actually began to enjoy myself.”
And why not enjoy yourself? Life is short – enjoy it while you can.
Hannah and Her Sisters (PG-13) won three Oscars and is chock full of stars, including Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow, Barbara Hershey and Carrie Fisher. It’s available on Netflix and for sale (as available) on Amazon.com.