The Purple Rose of Cairo

I am a Woody Allen fan. Oh, I don’t mean I camp out in front of the theater, anxiously awaiting his latest magnum opus, but I enjoy his films. From the charming Annie Hall and Bananas to the pathetic Match Point and the ineffective Second Hand Crooks, I’ve seen a good portion of his oeuvre. So I think I have a sense of what a good Woody Allen film is.

The Purple Rose of Cairo, a light drama about a character in a 1930s comedy leaping off the screen to fall in love with an abused wife, falls under the Good category, for sure. It’s not side-splittingly funny, but it also doesn’t come off as dull or maudlin, traits that befall some of Allen’s more dour works. Mia Farrow, looking very pixieish, plays Cecilia, the put-upon, scatterbrained love interest who’s as shocked as anyone else when Tom Baxter, played by Jeff Daniels, stops in the middle of a scene to call out to Cecilia. When Tom jumps from the movie to the real world, his fellow characters are stunned – they can’t complete the scene (or the movie) without him!

The movie could have been too philosophical, examining the difference between life as we know it and life on the “other side,” as a written character, but Allen thankfully spares us any meandering teaching and concentrates on what becomes a romantic square of sorts: Cecilia, Tom, Gil Shepherd (Daniels again), and Monk (Danny Aiello), Cecilia’s loutish husband. Whom will Cecilia choose, knowing the consequences of her choice? The characters still on the screen – waiting impatiently for Tom to return so they can just get on with the movie, already – want her to choose someone, anyone. Monk is sure she’ll never leave him; he loves, her don’t he? What a lug. Even when he’s beating Tom up, although being a movie character Tom isn’t easily injured.

The movie’s well cast; interesting to note that Michael Keaton was originally the choice to play Tom/Gil, but Allen removed him from the picture early during filming. Now there’s something to think about – the future Batman playing Tom Baxter. If he had, maybe Keaton would have become known more for smallish, character-driven roles like this instead of leads in romantic comedies and big-budget action movies. Farrow is wonderful as Cecilia, stammering her way through a typical Mia Farrow performance for the time. Cinematographer Gordon Willis, who shot all of the Godfather films, does remarkable work showing Cecilia’s reactions in a dark movie theater. Them’s some good filmin’ chops there.

One caveat: We’re supposed to feel great sympathy (and empathy) for Cecilia, but near the beginning of the movie she’s fired from her thankless job as a waitress for – get this – not doing her job; she dropped stuff, was slow getting orders and checks, and so on. I know, I know, we should feel for her because her husband’s a Class A jackass, a layabout who slaps her around a bit. But this isn’t why she lost her job, see? I mean, if she had been so overwrought and distracted owing to her home situation, that would be one thing, but she spent a lot of her time yakking with her sister, also a waitress, and THAT is why she wound up fired.

But it’s of little concern. What makes this movie work is that Gil and Tom are not mirror images of each other; each is sufficiently nuanced that it’s not a clear case of Good and Bad. It’s not as if one wants Cecilia because he loves her and the other because he lusts after her; each man loves Cecilia in his own way, making her final decision an awfully difficult one. Allen actually got a bit of flak for his ending, which I think is poignant, not a cop out.

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