Some movies, they should hand out a suicide kit in the lobby, in case you just can’t make it to the end. A length of rope, a razor blade, a revolver with one bullet. For the Buddhists, a can of gasoline. Films about the Holocaust, for instance, or one of Woody Allen’s favorites, The Sorrow and the Pity. Some of the films of Ingmar Bergman, who Woody has always admired. In this movie he does his best to imitate the icy, dour, pessimistic Nordic outlook of Bergman, and does a pretty good job of it. The trouble is, for me, that I’ve never been a big Bergman admirer.
I think the initial trouble, for me and others, was a sort of emotional whiplash. Woody has stated that he wishes he could have been a great tragedian. Instead, he has had to express his angst through comedy, sometimes black and bitter. He was extremely tired of being “just a comic,” and moved very quickly from the zany comedy of Love and Death to the sweet, romantic story of Annie Hall, and then to this. It was like a slap in the face to all the fans of his comedy, including me. I pretty much hated it the first time around.
It’s better on a later viewing, with the rest of Woody’s huge body of work to compare it to. I will always still prefer his more light-hearted movies, at least partly because there’s nobody around who is as good as he is at that when he’s firing on all cylinders. But if he needs to make a depressing movie now and then, I am now with him all the way.
So here we have the story of a rich family with a father (E.G. Marshall), a deeply disturbed mother (Geraldine Page), and three neurotic sisters (Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt, Kristin Griffith). The mother believes herself to be an interior decorator, but she just dabbles, really. She strikes me as the Henry Ford of interior decorating: You can have any color you want, as long as it’s beige, gray, or oyster white. Her rooms are sterile as operating theaters. Suddenly, Pops announces he wants a divorce. It is all very civilized, and he seems to have no idea how this is affecting the women. Soon he introduces Pearl (Maureen Stapleton, who got an Oscar nomination), a woman who would only need to have a pulse to be more lively than this crowd, and she’s a lot more than that. Furious that Pearl has accidentally broken a piece-of-shit but very expensive beige vase, one sister calls her a “vulgarian.” I’d hated her already, and now I really hated her. Eventually, Mama walks into the ocean and drowns herself. Pardon me, sir, are you using that noose? Could I borrow it for a few moments?