A great deal of the reason that I love Woody Allen is that the man loves to feel down. Hell, how many other directors can so routinely refuse to give the audience what they want and keep his endings original almost every time? Imagine my surprise, then, when I popped The Purple Rose of Cairo and discovered a magical (and extremely underrated) gem. For a man who never seems to smile, Allen knows how good he has it, and what starts as his usual, depressing fare transforms into one of the all-time great love letters to cinema.
Appropriately for Allen, the film is set in the Great Depression. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) desperately clings to a job as a waitress and spends more time trying not to lose the gig than serve people. Her boss knows that in these times, he can fire anyone and have a replacement immediately, and he terrorizes his employees into complete servitude. Her home life is even worse: her abusive husband (Danny Aiello) lost his job and seems content to let Cecilia provide for him while he whiles away the time gambling, drinking and cavorting with friends. Often she speaks of leaving him, but even if she gets out of the house she never gets more than a few steps out the door before she returns.
So, like all those who hate their lot in life, Cecilia tries to escape it. She spends all her free time at the local cinema, where the same film plays for weeks. She enters a broken-down mess, but for an hour and a half she's on cloud nine. One film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, plays for weeks on end, and Cecilia watches it frequently. She sees it so many times that, during a scene in the film, dashing supporting character Tom Baxter suddenly looks towards the audience and speaks directly to her. Then, he steps out of the screen as if was always possible, and suddenly you know you're watching something special.
Tom (Jeff Daniels) tells Cecilia that he and the other characters must act out the same dull routines endlessly, but through constantly seeing her he fell in love, giving him the courage to break out of his celluloid prison. Tom acts just a like a movie character would: he's chivalric, intelligent, loving, and utterly clueless when it comes to the real world. A great deal of the film's comedy comes from this naïveté: Tom takes Cecilia to a high end restaurant, only to realize his stage money isn't real. So he and Cecilia make a run for it, only for him to leap in a car and be utterly bewildered when it doesn't start. "You need a key," Cecilia timidly whispers. "They always just go in the movies," Tom replies exasperated.
Meanwhile, the other characters on the screen must sit around and wait for Tom to return. Audiences heckle them for not getting on with the show, but Tom, supporting character that he may be, is instrumental to the plot. The patrons initially demand refunds, but some people filter in just to watch the spectacle of characters playing cards. Word gets back to Hollywood, and Gil Shepherd, the actor who portrayed Tom, travels to Jersey to ensure that his rogue character does not ruin his budding career.
Gil initially presents himself as your typical egomaniacal actor: he blames himself for his character escaping because he "played him so real." Then he too meets Cecilia and falls for her innocence and her love of film. It probably doesn't hurt that she's a big fan and thinks he could be the next big thing. So now she's involved in a love triangle (technically a quadrilateral, but the husband really only factors in when he tries to prevent her from leaving) with a man and his doppelganger. Jeff Daniels has to walk a fine line here, but he does a magnificent job of explore the comedic exaggerations of both his characters without letting them slip into two-dimensionality. In fact, the only downside of his performances is that they can overshadow Mia Farrow's work, which is stellar: she doesn't seem like the person who could pull off being a cinephile archetype, but watching her sit down in a theater crying about the way of the world, only to slowly break out into an ecstatic smile when the power of film hits her is a sight to behold.
Despite the whimsy and purity of the film, Allen does let his typical gloom slip in near the end, it only reminds us that the real romance of this rom-com is our relationship with movies. The majority of films about film take us behind the scenes, onto tumultuous sets and inside shady business dealings. But The Purple Rose of Cairo sits in the audience with us and reflects what true film lovers feel when the lights go down and the screen flickers to life. I have never seen a film that so proves the maxim that to see the greatest film, one need only stand at the front of the theater and look back at everyone's upturned faces.