But even knowing the basic plot going in, I was not prepared for just how funny Purple Rose would be, nor was I prepared for the turns its plot would take. Yes, Mia Farrow's depression-era abused wife Cecilia goes to see the fictional film The Purple Rose of Cairo so many times that Jeff Daniels's sweet-hearted, safari-suited character Tom Baxter walks right off the screen to be with her, but what happens after that is Woody Allen's true stroke of genius.
Not only are the theater patrons amused and appalled in equal measure, not only do the other characters in the film within the film sit around and grouse about the asshole who walked off the screen and left them without a way to continue the movie, not only does the theater owner call the producer and distributor to take care of the problem, but the studio calls the actor who played the role (Jeff Daniels again) to fix it!
Leave it to Woody Allen to treat this fantastical premise completely realistically. And I do mean completely: Even Tom's money isn't real.
Everything follows a completely sound train of logic, making the entire thing seem even more absurd than it actually is. Especially when we get two versions of Jeff Daniels, the actor and the character he created, getting into metaphysical arguments about who's who and who's the better person. It's hilarious stuff, especially for this performer. This is a really unique way to tackle the identity issues that can come with being an actor: What would happen if the character your played in a film - the actual character, you as the character - appeared in front of you in real life? Is he you? Some version of you?
One of many great little details in the film is how Tom expects the real world to behave like the movies - when he starts to get hot and heavy with Cecilia, he expects the world to fade-out and for time to jump to after they've had sex. He has no idea what sex is like, because movies of that time never showed anything beyond some relatively chaste making out. Which makes his visit to a brothel with Dianne Wiest (LOVE. HER.) especially hilarious.
And then, Tom actually brings Cecilia into his movie for a patented Hollywood-style nightclub montage. The perfection of The Purple Rose of Cairo, the film-within-the-film, is glorious to behold. The actors, including Edward Herrmann, Van Johnson, Deborah Rush, and Zoe Caldwell, are clearly having a blast playing classic film tropes of characters, and the style of the film is so perfect (from the literal title cards to the soundtrack to the afore-mentioned montage) that you might actually buy that this thing was a real Hollywood film from that time.
But let's get back to the actual film. I think that anyone who loves movies can relate to Farrow's Cecilia. I felt like I knew her almost immediately, as she goes to the movies so much that she knows the people who work in the theater by name. I make it a point to try to go to the movies once a week - I budget it as a necessary expense, not a fun thing to do if I have the money. And haven't we all wanted to meet a movie star in real life - let alone actually be in a movie for real? Cecilia gets to do all of that. And even when things don't work out so well, she still has the movies. A new one comes out every week!
Apparently there was some criticism of the film when it came out because of its ending. People claimed it wasn't "happy". To which I first have to say: Who says all films have to have a happy ending? And frankly, I agree with Woody Allen, who retorted, "That was the happy ending." There is no way to end this story more happily. If Cecilia runs off with actor Gil, there's no way they would live happily ever after. He's so self-absorbed that he would eventually leave her for someone else, and with nothing, and she'd be right back where she started. If she runs off with the fictional Tom, they won't get far before the harsh realities of life will come crashing down on them both. Tom isn't just fictional, he lives (quite literally) in a fantasy world, and has no idea how to live in the real one. Nope, no matter how you slice it, Cecilia eventually has to face the music and realize that life, with all its ups and downs, must be lived. It doesn't always end happily, but that's why we have movies. Life can't be like them, but they sure are nice to escape to.
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Written and Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, Dianne Wiest
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay Nomination (lost to Witness)