Purple Rose Of Cairo (PG.)
Directed by Woody Allen. 1985.
Starring Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, Edward Herrmann, John Wood, Van Johnson, Milo O'Shea, Dianne Wiest, Michael Tucker and Glenne Headly. 80 mins. Out on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.
Escapism is the engine that has kept cinema going over the decades, but it is a strange thing. During our present great depression audiences have flocked to watch contorted epics about people with superhuman abilities; back in the 1930's during the Great Depression the suffering masses flocked to the movie houses to see elegant creatures in evening wear quaff champagne, sip Martinis, go to the Copacabana and have madcap Manhattan weekends.
Or at least that is the situation of Cecilia (Farrow), who escapes from life in 1935 New Jersey, her humdrum job in a diner and her abusive husband (Aiello), by visiting the movie house to watch musicals and gay romances. She is particularly taken with The Purple Rose of Cairo, goes day after day, can't get enough of it; until one of the on screen characters, pith helmeted explorer Tom Baxter (Daniels) decides he can't get enough of her and comes down out of the movie screen to get to know her.
One of Allen's little side lines down the years has been knocking out short stories. These are often whimsical little pieces based on conceits like a man being reincarnated as a lobster and finding out what all his old friends have come back as, or a ring of call girls who discuss literature for $50 an hour with guys whose wives aren't intellectual. Very little of this side of him has ever spilled over into his films however: Midnight In Paris, Zelig; Oedipus Rex, his contribution to the New York Stories anthology movie; bits of Deconstructing Harry; maybe Hollywood Endings where a film director goes blind the day before shooting a film with his ex-wife.
Which is strange because they really suit on the big screen and Purple Rose is one of his most perfectly realised film. The situation and funny lines seem to develop effortlessly. It looks great too: in his last collaboration Gordon Willis gives a rich glow to the New Jersey town that still expresses the bleakness of life there.
At times the film can seem like it is underplaying or making light of the miseries the people were facing; for a cheating, unfeeling husband not afraid to dish out a slap when he feels his wife is not fulfilling her marital obligations, Aiello is a bit of pussycat. But though the film plays light, it is one of Allen's hardest vehicle, it cuts deep.
The problem perhaps is that it is little too perfect, too smooth. It works like clockwork and, like Zelig, you might find it a little uninvolving. There's much to admire, less to really like.
There are though two great lead performances. Daniels is perfect in the dual role of fictional Tom Baxter and the ambitious actor Gil Shepherd who created him and will do anything necessary to get his creation back on the screen and save his career. Then there is Mia Farrow. I think Woody Allen fans always tend to favour Diane Keaton over Mia Farrow, and they're probably right to do so, there was a great rapport between them. But with Keaton there wasn't much variation, you always knew what you were getting. In Purple Rose of Cairo Farrow is utterly convincing as a dishcloth of a woman. You can barely believe that this is the same woman that embodied the feisty Tina in Broadway Danny Rose.