Purple Rose of Cairo, The (1985)

“What good is perfect if a man’s not real?”

Synopsis:
In Depression-era New Jersey, a meek housewife (Mia Farrow) with an abusive husband (Danny Aiello) seeks solace in the local movie theater, where one of the characters on-screen (Jeff Daniels) falls in love with her and jumps out into the real world to be with her.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s entire review of The Purple Rose of Cairo contains spoilers of a sort (as does just about every other review I’ve seen online) — so neophyte viewers should be forewarned. If you’ve never seen this film, and wish for it to remain entirely fresh, stop reading anything about it, go watch it, then return here when you’ve finished — at which point I’ll spoil away, along with Peary.

SPOILER ALERT FINISHED

Peary notes that “perhaps Woody Allen decided not to be in his sourest comedy because as director-writer he plays such dirty tricks on all his characters”, given that “nobody ends up happier than when we first see them”. That’s actually not entirely true, but his point is that TPROC doesn’t have a traditional happy ending (though Allen himself, who refused to change the ending despite studio pressures, insists it is a “happy ending”). Peary laments the fact that Farrow’s “lonely, miserable soul” — with a “rough, cheating, good-for-nothing husband” — is “for the first time [given] a chance to escape her sad existence”, yet ultimately isn’t “allowed” to (by Allen, who apparently decided “that her escape into a fantasy world would be unrealistic“). Peary argues that perhaps Allen is “trying to tell us that those unhappy people who use movies to escape from their problems are only deceiving themselves” — a decidedly “gloomy theme, because someone like Farrow has no other way to soothe her sorrow”.

Peary does concede, however, that “on the other hand, Allen’s film may also be a tribute to the cinema for having the power to help one escape” — and this is certainly the overriding feeling one leaves with by the (admittedly depressing) ending. Peary notes that Allen references “Pirandello and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr.” in his decision to have a movie character (“Tom Baxter”) “walk off the screen and strike up a romance with Farrow”, and it’s important for film fanatics to be aware that the basic premise of TPROC didn’t originate with Allen. (Go check out Sherlock, Jr. immediately if you haven’t done so already.) But Allen goes even further than Keaton in his envisioning of how such a fantastical scenario might play out, with the remaining characters on-screen — decidedly put-out by having their familiar narrative interrupted (by a “minor character”, no less) — ultimately simply sitting around impatiently waiting for “Baxter” to return. Meanwhile, the actor playing Baxter (Daniels) worries simply about how “Baxter”‘s actions might affect his nascent career, and studio heads fear legal recriminations.

Though Peary argues that “Allen doesn’t handle the actor-out-of-the-screen premise as inventively as one would hope”, I disagree — I find the entire screenplay cleverly conceived and handled, with seamless special effects (helped by Gordon Willis’s masterful cinematography) allowing us to believe that the b&w characters up on-screen really do possess a life of their own (albeit one realistically limited by the constraints of the script’s trajectory). Meanwhile, fine performances by Farrow and Daniels ground the entire film, making us root for these characters in their unlikely predicament. Allen keeps us in suspense until the very end, wondering how things will ultimately turn out — and while you may or may not agree with his final choice, it at least makes “logical” sense.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mia Farrow as Cecilia (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Jeff Daniels as Tom Baxter/Gil Shepherd
  • Fun and creative special effects
  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a creative and enchanting (if ultimately depressing) romantic fantasy.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

One Response to “Purple Rose of Cairo, The (1985)”

  1. A wonderful must – and clever enough to merit multiple viewings.

    As in his ‘Broadway Danny Rose’ review, Peary makes a few more troubling observations, here re: ‘TPROC’. It is not Allen’s “sourest comedy” and he does not play “dirty tricks on all his characters”. Again, Peary seems to put a stranglehold on what comedy is – and I’m at a loss figuring out what these “dirty tricks” are. What – did Allen sit down to write while muttering to himself, “Now I’ll get these characters – NOW I’ll get them!”?! The idea is ludicrous.

    First and foremost, the film is not a comedy. It’s designed specifically for film lovers (or fanatics, if you will) and is about the power of cinema and the ability it has to lift us up and out of ourselves. (Note the film’s final hold on Farrow’s face.) And, of course, around that idea there is a plot – set in the Depression era, when people were particularly in need of what cinema could offer as escape. (As with ‘Radio Days’, ‘TPROC’ is brought vividly to life through painstaking and remarkable attention to period detail. That alone is an exquisite achievement.)

    If the film is “sour” at all, that element rests with the Gil Shepherd character. Allen does seem to have plenty to say about the number of actors who are complete phonies in real life – empty shells who spend little or no time developing themselves as genuine human beings. (Note the last shot of Daniels as Shepherd on a plane headed back to Hollywood: he seems to have a twinge of guilt, which will easily be gone once he’s back in front of a camera.)

    Like some of the best (and more ‘serious’) Allen films of this period, ‘TPROC’ is mixed with hilarity – most of which, in this case, stems from what specifically happens in the film within the film. Allen does a lovely riff on this kind of bubbly entertainment (and the co-stars who populate this mock tribute play it to the hilt). As well, Allen does a spin on a visit to a whorehouse which is nothing less than charming. Without these balancing elements, yes, the film would be rather depressing.

    But, as I’ve said, what comes through as a theme is the restorative quality film so often holds for us. It’s what film fanatics prize. So I basically see ‘TPROC’ as a love letter to those who go back to film time and time again to feel – among so many other things – transported. (Note the use of Astaire and Rogers performing ‘Cheek to Cheek’ in the film’s conclusion.)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.