Movie Review: The Purple Rose of Cairo

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In New Jersey during the 1930s, a young woman with an abusive husband and a love of movies has her life turned upside down when one of the characters in the film she’s watching notices her and steps off the screen, falling in love with her and blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

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Woody Allen, 1985

This Woody Allen effort is a rumination on characters after they’ve been brought to celluloid life by the combination of the writing and the actor, and on the escapism of movies versus the harshness of reality. Mia Farrow plays the down-on-her-luck heroine, Cecilia, with doe-eyed sweetness. The country’s in the midst of the Depression and her brutish, lazy, abusive husband is, of course, out of work. She loses her own job waitressing at a diner by being clumsy and scattered, and escapes into the world of the latest film showing at the local cinema. The film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, features a dashing young adventurer Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels, who’s good in duel roles as both the character from the film-within-a-film and the actor who plays him) who has noticed Cecilia watching the movie over and over again and decides to head into the real world to woo her. Watching the rest of the characters get lost without the character around whom the plot hinges is pretty hilarious (Allen gets in a few good self-reverential jokes along the lines of “If I wanted to watch people sit around and talk I’d stay home!”) The studio goes into crisis mode and sends some of its people to Cecilia’s town to find the lovebirds, including, of course, actor Gil Shepherd, who seemingly falls in love with Cecilia as well.

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There’s not a lot of comedy in this film, nor is it particularly romantic. It’s fun and interesting, but this is absolutely a movie about moviemaking. There’s an underlying struggle between fiction and reality – when does fiction become our reality? When do characters take on a life of their own? Some of the more interesting ideas are those of how a character comes to life – looking at that magical combination of the right part and a right actor that makes these fictional people a part of our collective consciousness. It’s worth noting that the other actors in the movie are unable to step off screen, even though each character thinks they’re the star of the movie (and that Edward Hermann is in the movie, because he’s awesome). Rather than a love affair between Cecilia and any of her suitors, this is a love affair between the audience and the movies, and in that sense it is quite romantic – we’re wooed and romanced by them, but the question is whether they’re ultimately empty against the reality of life.

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The only issue I really had with the movie is that I didn’t really feel like I was being told a story. There was a lot of set up for a central idea to take place, but I would have enjoyed it more if I’d been more invested in the characters – I spent a lot of time wondering why everyone was falling in love with Mia Farrow in the film, because she was sweet but lacked the spark to carry a story like this and keep the audience on her side. The story is fine, but ultimately you know you’re watchng a movie and don’t really get sucked into the narrative or engage with the characters – I, at least, was more entertained by the scenes of the characters still in the movie, or people talking about movie characters coming to life and stepping out of the screen and how terribly inconvenient it is. It works better as an intellectual exercise than a story.

Django Unchained on IMDb

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