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The Purple Rose of Cairo

MGM Home Video

Starring Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels and Danny Aiello

Written and directed by Woody Allen

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Leave it to Woody Allen to invent a perfect comic device and then twist it into a heartbreaker.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is, thematically, a pivotal film in Allen's canon. While not among his greatest, most transcendent works, it is, in some way, the most successful integration of his favorite elements, his affection for the allure of old Hollywood films, and his fascination with magic realism. But there is another aspect in which Purple Rose is crucial to his career. It is, for a while, his most romantic film, and then it becomes his most cynical.

Mia Farrow stars as Cecilia, a downtrodden and mopey Depression-era waitress whose irresponsible, unemployed husband (Danny Aiello) neglects and beats her. Miserable, Cecilia finds escape in the movies. She is awed by their splendor, intoxicated by their sophistication, and lulled by their romance. Her preoccupation with the latest films distracts her from her work and she is fired. Despondent, she spends the rest of her day at the movie house, watching the same film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, over and over and over and…

Then Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen. Tom Baxter, of the Chicago Baxters, Purple Rose's dashing adventurer. In the middle of a scene, he notices Cecilia, enraptured in her movie marathon, and literally steps out of the film, into the movie house, takes her hand and leads her away.

This is the kind of tricky conceptual conceit that most filmmakers would butcher. But Allen handles it perfectly. Without bogging down to explain the unexplainable, Allen maintains stride and calculates the ramifications of this fantastic occurrence. The other characters in the film-within-the-film are stranded, stuck on screen without a narrative, left to their own devices. Some complain, some resign, and some call for revolution. From this existential crisis, Allen mines some of his funniest-ever comedy. Equally smart is the reaction from the film industry. The movie-house owner is in panic, the producer (and his lawyers) are seized by anxiety, and the actor who portrayed Tom Baxter, Gil Shephard (also Jeff Daniels), must fly to New Jersey, find his doppleganger, and put him back in the film, or else his career might lie in ruins.

Meanwhile, Tom takes Cecilia on whirlwind romance. Informed only by what was written into his character or enacted onscreen, Tom is boyish and pure, and idealist for whom lovemaking is simply a soft fade to black. Cecilia is swept away by his charms, and eager to leave her husband, but still wisely resistant of Tom's moviemade artificiality and naïveté (he doesn't understand that his money is fake, or that cars need keys to start). She is keenly aware of her precarious situation, on the brink between fantasy and reality, and is scared of both. In perfect farce form, Allen complicates his heroine's predicament with a love triangle, the final angle filled out by actor Gil Shephard, who, as a member of the Hollywood community, represents both fantasy and reality.

Despite such perfectly executed comic construction, Allen maintains a dark undercurrent to this romantic romp, particularly with the suggestion of abuse by Cecilia's husband. So it should be no surprise — although it is — when Allen rips away the Hollywood artifice and ends his film harshly, coldly, and for the very first time, without hope.

Before The Purple Rose of Cairo, even Allen's most bittersweet films ended with a glimmer of warmth. But that era of Allen, while not exactly over (Hannah and Her Sisters a year later features perhaps the happiest ending of all his mature films), is suddenly stopped short, suggesting the grim, sharp anti-romantic realism/nihilism that would inform later Allen films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives.

The sharp turn in The Purple Rose of Cairo is jarring, necessarily, the sort of thematic shift that makes sense intellectually and thematically, but in action its whiplashing jolt makes it difficult to digest emotionally, robbing some of its potential power.

MGM's The Purple Rose of Cairo is presented in a fine, though by no means meticulous, 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and Dolby Digital mono (Allen's preferred audio format). The theatrical trailer is included.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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