The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG for adult themes
Running Time: 85 min.
Cast: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, Dianne Weist, Edward Herrman, Irving Metzman, Stephanie Farrow
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Review published October 3, 2003. Revised on January 29, 2007.
Short, but so beautifully sweet. The Purple Rose of Cairo sees Woody Allen (Broadway Danny Rose, Stardust Memories) in peak form in one of his most ingenious comedies. While it may ostensibly lack the weight of some of his more serious work, the inspired moments are plentiful, filled to the brim with funny observations and witty characterizations. Although Woody isn't in it, Mia Farrow (Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors) proves just as capable of carrying such a picture, adding a good deal of benevolent charm to her role, while Jeff Daniels (Dumb & Dumber, 2 Days in the Valley) is equally likeable in a dual role playing fact and fictional characters.
Farrow plays Cecilia, a waitress in depression-era New Jersey, whose life is filled with the high stress of work and the strife of coming home to an abusive, unemployed husband (Aiello, Moonstruck). In order to escape from the situation, Cecilia takes to the movies, and the latest at the local theater, The Purple Rose of Cairo, has her going multiple times. On the worst day, shortly after losing her job, something new happens during the movie. The fourth wall is broken, and Tom Baxter (Daniels), a supporting character in the movie, walks off the screen and into her life for real. The movie is ruined, people are in a panic, and Cecilia has a dilemma, having to choose between her husband, the fictitious character, and Gil Shepherd (also Daniels), the actor who plays Baxter and who also wants a chance at her attention.
Admittedly, there is a level of predictability to the plotting, as it's clear that the idealized Baxter will have an easy time wooing the despairing wife away from the macho, egotistical husband, played well by Aiello. You also can figure out that there will be more romantic struggles one the man who plays Baxter enters the scene. However, the joys of Purple Rose come not in the surprises held in the overall story, but in the great observations made in between the developments. It's fun to watch the "real world" interact with the disgruntled characters waiting for Tom's return so they can finish their movie. It's also funny to see Baxter try to interact with society, limited by the conventions of his character as written for purposes of the story he came from.
Set in the midst of the Great Depression, Allen shows in his film just what going to the movies means to those undergoing financial and emotional hardships, allowing them avenues of escape from their humdrum lives, even if only for the few hours that the films actually screen. In a broader context, it also explores the limitations that such escapism provides, as well as the ability for us to reflect on what's missing from our own lives that might provide us happiness. Our protagonist is faced with a choice of living in a complete fantasy, one that is idealized, and the all-too-bleak reality of her daily existence. We wish and we hope right along with her, and though the film doesn't quite give us the wonderful cure-all ending that would seem a more natural fit for a film this light, it does bring forth an important point about the magic of cinema, and its power to take us to lands we'll never see, meet people we'd never know, and feel a natural attraction and kinship with people that can never exist.
There are many other nice touches throughout, but I don't want to spoil them all. The Purple Rose of Cairo is essential viewing for those who love Woody Allen, old Hollywood features, or just anyone who has ever felt the magic of the movies. It hearkens a simpler time in America, with naive characters, and sweeter, more innocent reflections. In an ultimate twist of irony, The Purple Rose of Cairo becomes the kind of pure escapist entertainment for many of us that the film of the same name within does for Cecilia, capturing our minds, hearts and imaginations. One of the finest films by Allen, wonderfully comic, and beautiful in its winsome sentimentality. Woody Allen has often mentioned that it's his favorite film of the ones he has made, and as the years pass, I find myself more in agreement. My love for it grows with every repeat viewing.
©2003, 2007 Vince Leo