The Purple Rose of Cairo

May 25, 2011

Ever since he is early, knockabout comedies, Woody Allen has always had a bittersweet streak. It’s a tendency that reached full flower in the romantic glories of Annie Hall and Manhattan, but it was always there.

It remains with Allen, but lately the sweet has been dominating the bitter. Woody’s latest films, particularly Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, have been sweet-souled, whimsical little movies, full of charm and small-scale humor. They’ve also seemed just a bit insubstantial, even if they may be every bit as well-made as his earlier high points.

This newest, The Purple Rose of Cairo, continues in this vein. It’s a slim, utterly likable fantasy about an unhappy New Jersey housewife (Mia Farrow) whose solace in life is disappearing into the movie theater and losing herself in the flicker on screen. One day, however, the screen looks back at her—when Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), an archeologist-adventurer-poet character in a silly comedy called The Purple Rose of Cairo turns to her and asks her why she’s seen the movie five times.

Naturally, the housewife (not to mention the rest of the audience) is disconcerted—but she’s even more surprised when the character steps out of the screen and rushes her out of the theater. You see, he has fallen in love with her, and he wants to get a taste of real life.

The farce builds nicely: The other characters in the Purple Rose movie sit around and worry about how to finish the film, while filmgoers are disgruntled by the lack of plot. The owner of the theater calls the studio head, who contacts the actor who played Baxter (also played by Jeff Daniels, natch) to fly out and find his imaginary alter ego.

Meanwhile, Baxter, clad in pith helmet and khaki knickers, is learning that real life is a tougher row to hoe than happily ever-after film existence, while the housewife starts to believe maybe she doesn’t need her brutish husband (Danny Aiello) to get along in life.

What a terrific idea for a movie—something of a variant on Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., in which a projectionist enters a film and becomes a new character. Allen’s approach eschews slapstick and big laughs; he emphasizes Farrow’s wan love of movies, and Daniels’ energetic work (he was Debra Winger’s husband in Terms of Endearment) as the innocent Baxter and the fatuous actor who plays him.

Some of the choicest bits come courtesy of the fictional Purple Rose cast: Edward Herrmann, John Wood, and Deborah Rush do versions of Noel Coward, Edward Everett Horton, and Jean Harlow, respectively, and they exist in a beautifully realized recreation of an early 1930s black-and-white comedy, in which all the scenes are obliged to begin with one character jauntily bounding over to the cocktail table and piping, “Who’ll have an eye-opener?”

At 82 minutes, The Purple Rose of Cairo—the first of Allen’s films since Interiors in which he does not also star—is perhaps too modest for its own good.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

I wonder what the ending of my review was before someone snipped it off to fit it onto the page? Because the way it stands, it’s too modest for its own good. Oh well. Maybe it fits the smallish accomplishments of this movie, which isn’t vivid enough in my memory to inspire any new insights.