THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. Directed and written by Woody Allen; produced by Robert Greenhut for Orion. Starring Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels and Danny Aiello. Rated PG.
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Anyone who really gets involved in a movie has had an experience like Cecilia's in The Purple Rose of Cairo. At least temporarily, the movie's world and characters become real, while the real world fades to a phantom. Woody Allen, however, is fond of stretching such a commonplace idea to its snapping point and beyond. The result here is entertaining, original and gently funny, but somewhat disconcerting as well.
Times are hard enough for Cecilia (Farrow) on her good days, what with an abusive husband (Aiello), a thankless job, and the general economic pressures of the Depression. She loves the movies, though. So when things get really rough she sits through "The Purple Rose of Cairo," this week's attraction at the Jewel, several times.
She's there long enough, eventually, to attract the attention of one of the characters. Wealthy archeologist Tom Baxter (Daniels) is so taken with her that he leaves the screen to declare his affection.
Cecilia has a hard time teaching Tom about the realities of life off-screen (his money's no good, for example, and the absence of a fade-out after they kiss baffles him). But he's very sweet, so it looks like Cecilia's finally gotten a break.
The studio, however, hears about Tom's defection (the other characters in the movie convince the theater owner to call Hollywood). They can't have a movie character running around loose, not when they're legally liable for his actions. So Gil Shepard (also Daniels, of course), the actor who plays Tom, is send to New Jersey to find him.
The Purple Rose of Cairo isn't uproariously funny, as it would have been with Allen on-screen instead of behind the camera. But it is amusing, even beyond the basic idea of a movie character taking on flesh and wooing a waitress in New Jersey.
Some of the funniest scenes involve the characters left behind in the Jewel. Still on-screen in the old-fashioned movie house, and still in black and white, they pass the time by playing cards, discussing life vs. art, and occasionally insulting the audience.
The runaway Tom is another comic highlight, and he really makes the gimmick work. His character is completely consistent. He doesn't know anything about the world that a screen character wouldn't know. Both brothels and churches, for example, require an explanation.
Daniels is excellent in both of his roles. Tom and Gil are obviously connected, but noticeably different as well. Tom is a character unlike any in movie history, so his freshness is understandable. We've seen a lot of actors playing actors, on the other hand, but Daniels' characterization of Gil is original and quite funny, too.
Farrow is sweetly appealing as Cecilia, the eternal victim. Her continued sunny disposition in the face of exploitation wears a little, however. Perhaps because of this, her character is ultimately disturbing. The real facts of her miserable existence eventually intrude too much on the comedy. Her life would have contrasted well enough with that of the socialites on the screen, if just a few of her burdens had been lightened.
The story of The Purple Rose of Cairo, obviously doesn't hold up under close scrutiny. But its ideas are worth a little pondering. What kind of influence do the movies, the most hypnotic of the arts, have on our daily lives? If you had to choose between a perfect, but unreal, existence, and the real world, with all its complexity, beauty and frustration, what would you do?
Making us laugh and think at the same time is what Woody Allen does best. And he does it with charm and inventiveness in The Purple Rose of Cairo.
April 3, 1985