Directed By: Woody Allen
Starring: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello
Tag line: "She's finally met the man of her dreams. He's not real but you can't have everything"
Trivia: The production shoot for this film began in November 1983 whilst the picture did not debut until March 1985, sixteen months later
When it comes to those who’ve left their mark on the fantasy genre, a few names jump to mind, including Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), Walt Disney (Alice in Wonderland), George Pal (The Time Machine), and, more recently, Steven Spielberg (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial), Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits), and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy). One filmmaker who seldom receives the recognition he deserves is Woody Allen. With movies like 1983’s Zelig and 2011’s Midnight in Paris, Mr. Allen has shown a penchant for creating fantastic worlds and populating them with everyday characters audiences can relate to. Arguably, his finest fantasy film to date is 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, a comedy / romance in which the cinema itself collides head-on with reality.
The setting is New Jersey during the Great Depression, and, like most people, Cecelia (Mia Farrow) is struggling to stay afloat. Her husband, Monk (Danny Aiello), lost his job a few years ago (and from the looks of it, he isn’t in a hurry to find a new one), meaning Cecelia, aside from working as a waitress, has to take the odd babysitting gig just to make ends meet. To forget her troubles, Cecelia goes to the movies as often as she can. In fact, she’s seen the newest picture, The Purple Rose of Cairo, at least half a dozen times. Her favorite character in the movie is Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), a mild-mannered African explorer who’s invited by some socialites to accompany them to New York. But during one particular screening of The Purple Rose of Cairo, something amazing happens. In the middle of a scene, Tom Baxter, who’s noticed Cecelia sitting in the audience, stops reciting his lines and steps off the screen, joining her in the real world! Claiming he’s in love with her, Tom tells Cecelia they’ll be together forever, but is she ready to throw it all away and spend the rest of her life with a fictional character?
In The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen addresses the subject of escapism by taking it to its extreme, creating a world in which not only film audiences seek an escape from the humdrum of their everyday lives, but the characters up on the screen do as well. For Cecelia, movies are her only solace. Trapped in a loveless marriage to an unemployed slob, she needs the movies to help her maintain her sanity, and relishes the time she spends basking in the flickering glow of high society that her newest favorite, The Purple Rose of Cairo, offers her.
So, imagine her surprise when Tom Baxter, the handsome explorer who’s traveled the globe, tires of his artificial existence and leaps off the screen. As expected, when Tom crosses that invisible boundary between fantasy and reality, it has a ripple effect on both worlds. Without him, the movie’s story cannot continue, causing the film’s remaining characters to sit around discussing what they should do next. And, of course, when Hollywood learns one of their fictional characters is running around the streets of New Jersey, it sends shock waves throughout the industry, threatening both the studio (who fear Tom may be breaking the law, which could lead to an influx of lawsuits) and Gil Shepherd (Daniels again), the actor who portrayed Tom (aside from the negative impact this will have on his career, Gil shares the studio’s fears, especially since he and Tom have the exact same fingerprints). As for Tom himself, he’s ill-equipped to handle life on the outside (one night, he takes Cecelia out for a fancy dinner, only to discover the restaurant doesn’t accept stage money), and a brief sequence in which Cecelia enters the world of the movie also proves unfulfilling. With The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen shows us there’s a big difference between leaving your problems behind for a few hours and trying to walk away from them for good, a lesson his two lead characters, Tom and Cecelia, learn the hard way.
As philosophical as this all sounds, The Purple Rose of Cairo is, in reality, a lighthearted affair, filled with clever dialogue and a number of very funny scenes (my favorite is when Tom and his real-life counterpart, Gil Shepherd, are standing in the theater talking things over, and both react angrily when a character still on the screen refers to Tom as a “minor” element of the story). Yes, The Purple Rose of Cairo gives you something to think about, but only in hindsight; the truth is that, during the movie, you’re having too much fun to do anything but laugh.