In 1930s New Jersey, a movie character walks off the screen and into the real world.
Anyone familiar with Woody Allen knows the famed writer-director wears his love of movies on his sleeve. An array of eclectic cinematic references abound in his films, ranging from Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa to 'The Sorrow and the Pity,' Veronica Lake, and Tom & Jerry. Like many of us, Allen learned about life from the movies and they profoundly influenced him in a variety of ways, so it's no surprise he decided to pay homage to the medium's unique brand of magic with his trademark warmth and whimsicality. That tribute is 1985's 'The Purple Rose of Cairo,' a delightfully daffy, tenderly romantic, and utterly superb wish-fulfillment fantasy that strikes a palpable chord with anyone who's ever succumbed to the seductive allure of the cinema. With keen perception, Allen examines our innate need to escape the harsh realities and pressures of life and immerse ourselves in a glamorous secondary existence where everyone's troubles are resolved in the final reel and happy endings are the order of the day. And he does so through a charming story set in the Depression, where movies loomed as large as New York skyscrapers, captivating the imagination of millions of struggling Americans and providing a small measure of hope to the hopeless.
And hopeless describes Cecilia (Mia Farrow) to a T. A clumsy, insecure waitress who drops more dishes than she serves, the sweet, starry-eyed Cecilia struggles to support her blustery, philandering husband Monk (Danny Aiello), a good-for-nothing loafer who shoots dice all day, treats her like a slave, and knocks her around when she talks back. The couple only have a few pennies to their name, and Cecilia spends most of them at the local bijou, basking in the glow of a new flick each week. Up on the screen in glorious black-and-white lies the carefree life Cecilia longs to live, filled with reckless adventure, free-flowing cocktails, penthouse parties, chic clothes, boundless money, and passionate romance. Her new obsession is a silly trifle called 'The Purple Rose of Cairo,' featuring the strapping and dashing Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels) as Tom Baxter, an "explorer, poet, and adventurer" who meets a bunch of society ninnies in an Egyptian tomb and impulsively returns with them to New York City, where a new world of frivolous indulgence awaits him.
And coincidentally, a new world awaits Cecilia as well. Distraught and desolate after a fight with Monk, she retreats to her only refuge, the movie theater, where she sits all day and binge-watches 'Purple Rose' in a trance-like state, until much to her astonishment Tom abruptly breaks character and begins talking directly to her. The interaction stuns Cecilia and rankles the other patrons (as well as Tom's fellow actors in the film), but things really get weird when Tom leaves the two-dimensional world of make-believe, literally jumping off the screen and becoming a flesh-and-blood presence in Cecilia's life. "You're fetching," he tells her. "I'm nothing," she shyly replies. And so begins the explorer's exploration of life outside the constricting confines of celluloid.
A vision of perfection, Tom is everything Monk is not - kind, considerate, protective, attentive, devastatingly handsome, and loads of fun - and, best of all, he becomes instantly smitten with Cecilia, sweeping her into the kind of whirlwind romance about which she's always fantasized. Yet as a scripted movie character bound by the limits of his limited experience in an inane motion picture (as well as the strict tenets of the Production Code), Tom is basically a blank slate who knows nothing of the real world. He's clueless about sex, childbirth, religion (the only God he knows is the hack writer who created him), global issues, and the troubles afflicting people's lives. Cecilia must teach him everything, quash his boyish notions, and expand his simplistic ideas, but in the process, she gains valuable personal attributes, most notably a sense of self-worth and an inner strength, both of which allow her to stand up to her oafish husband and make her own decisions.
All goes swimmingly until word of Tom's audacious behavior reaches Hollywood, prompting the producer of 'Purple Rose' to dispatch Gil Shepherd, the actor who portrays Tom, to New Jersey to try to coax Tom back into the film. Gil oozes movie star charm, yet beneath his vanity and self-absorption there's an aw-shucks genuineness that instantly attracts the starstruck Cecilia, who almost instantly bumps into him upon his arrival and flatters him with her encyclopedic knowledge of his fledgling career. Before long Gil also falls for Cecilia, creating one of the strangest love triangles in movie history. Does Cecilia choose the more grounded, flesh-and-blood Gil, who asks her to impulsively chuck her dead-end life and deadbeat husband and follow him to Hollywood, or the dreamy, ethereal Tom, who plans to live on love and let the future take care of itself?
Against this madcap plot, Allen brilliantly juxtaposes an alternate universe where the movie actors Tom abandoned continue to live on screen. (Think 'Six Characters in Search of an Author' by Pirandello.) Flummoxed by his departure and unsure how to proceed without him (they can't follow the script if he's no longer in the picture), the stuffy, cranky, spoiled actors - pricelessly portrayed by a terrific cast that includes Edward Herrmann, Deborah Rush, Van Johnson, Zoe Caldwell, John Wood, and Milo O'Shea - exist in a kind of limbo, biding their time, bickering with each other, pompously pontificating on their unendurable situation, and engaging in feisty altercations with impatient and annoyed audience members who are fed up with their incessant and childish whining. Like Tom, some of them crave the reality and dimensionality that elude them, but they're trapped in the illusion and can't find the portal to set themselves free.
'The Purple Rose of Cairo' is a rich tapestry composed of deceptively simple and surprisingly complex elements, yet Allen flawlessly executes the clever concept. A lyrical flow and marvelous aura of innocence and wonder distinguish the film, and Allen sustains them throughout the madcap, romantic, and melancholy sequences. Suspending disbelief, of course, is essential, but because the story is, in essence, a fantasy, we're better able and more willing to accept the crazy antics that transpire. Other directors might have trouble selling this avant-garde tale, but not Allen. From the first shot of Farrow's blank yet enormously expressive face, he taps into our collective consciousness and speaks in a language all habitual moviegoers understand. Who among us hasn't felt the same as Cecilia, looking to the movies to satisfy all our unrequited yearnings? And who hasn't wished we could magically insert ourselves in the action or connect on some level with our favorite character or performer? That's the nature of film, and it's why this art form so deeply and viscerally moves us. And more than almost anyone else, Allen understands these principles, and conveys them with simplicity and grace.
Daniels crafts two distinct characters who are just similar enough to complicate Cecilia's dilemma. His easygoing charm makes both men likable, but more importantly, his sincerity and naturalness make them believable. Legend has it Aiello was devastated when he lost the role of Lou Canova in 'Broadway Danny Rose' to Nick Apollo Forte, but Allen gives him an equally juicy part here, and he rises to the challenge, bringing out all of Monk's contradictions and fleshing out what could have been a cardboard character. Yet in the end, 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' is Farrow's film, and her wide-eyed wonder, awkward ebullience, endearing insecurity, and heartbreaking vulnerability supply the movie's emotional pull. She is us, and in a series of strikingly beautiful, understated close-ups (most of which are shot in a darkened theater), Farrow transmits an undeniable depth of spirit and reflects our own passion for film and how, under the right circumstances, it can singularly transform us.
In a stroke of genius, Allen uses Fred Astaire's rendition of Irving Berlin's 'Cheek to Cheek' to sum up every movie fan's feelings when the lights go down and the lamp of the projector begins to illuminate that magical, elusive image... "Heaven, I'm in heaven...and I seem to find the happiness I seek...and the cares that hung around me through the week, seem to vanish like a gambler's lucky streak." It all happens at the movies, and 'The Purple Rose of Cairo,' with humor, insight, and sensitivity, honors their deep and lasting effect upon us.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Purple Rose of Cairo' arrives on Blu-ray in a limited to 3,000 edition packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet, which includes an essay by film historian Julie Kirgo and several photos from the film, is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
First, the good news. Gordon Willis' cinematography lyrically depicts the bleakness and poverty of the Depression and the dumpy New Jersey town where Cecilia unhappily resides, and Twilight Time's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer faithfully renders it. The bad news is there's enough inconsistency in the picture quality to frustrate those who revere this special film. Grain levels flucuate wildly; some scenes flaunt a mild and pleasing amount of texture that adds appropriate grit to the period setting, while others seem bathed in a sea of noise that engulfs the background and muddies the image. Though clarity is solid, contrast occasionally runs a bit hot and plenty of faint speckles dot the source material. The intentionally muted color palette reflects the hopelessness afflicting 1930s society, but in a brilliant twist, most of the black-and-white movie sequences look glossy and rich, emphasizing the sophisticated glamour of the celluloid world and making it seem more inviting and desirable. Shadow delineation is quite good, background elements are easy to discern, and close-ups exude a lovely warmth and softness while still appearing well defined. A film that examines the profound effect of movies on our lives deserves a stunning treatment, and unfortunately that's not what we get here. Though far from a disaster, this transfer is a definite disappointment.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies clear, well-modulated sound. The period music, such as Fred Astaire's classic rendition of 'Cheek to Cheek,' as well as Dick Hyman's score (which perfectly evokes the Depression era) nicely fill the room, and all of Allen's lyrical dialogue and snappy exchanges are easily comprehendible. No age-related hiss, pops, or crackles disrupt the track's flow, and no distortion creeps into the mix. A few accents, such as the bric-a-brac Cecilia habitually drops, punch up the soundscape, but otherwise there's not much notable aural action on display. Complex audio has never much interested Allen, and this basic, nuts-and-bolts track reflects that. Without flash or nuance, it gets the job done and doesn't distract from the visuals or performances.
Typical of a Woody Allen release, almost no supplements are included on the disc.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The movie's original preview appropriately spotlights the story's lunacy and romance nature.
Isolated Music Track
Anyone who loves movies will appreciate and identify with 'The Purple Rose of Cairo.' Woody Allen's love letter to the cinema and how it shapes our personas and defines our hopes and dreams is one of his most personal and enduring works, fueled by a charming premise and distinguished by Allen's trademark humor, warmth, and understated artistry. Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation is a mixed bag, featuring a problematic video transfer, good audio, but not much in the way of supplements. Though deceptively frothy, 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' taps into every movie-lover's psyche and connects in a unique way to all of us, and for that reason alone, this release is highly recommended.