The Purple Rose of Cairo

Romance is pleasing even without a heart

John Hartl

"I've just met a wonderful man," says Mia Farrow. "He's fictional, but you can't have everything."

Actually, it's hard to say just what she's met. In Woody Allen's delightfully adventurous new comedy, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Farrow plays Cecilia, a waifish waitress who goes to the movies a lot when she can't deal with the Depression, her job or her boorish husband (Danny Aiello).

After Cecilia almost walks out on him, then loses her job, she shows up at the local Bijou (actually called the Jewel) and proceeds to watch her favorite new movie - several times in a row. It's a fictional RKO production, a goofy combination of 1930s black-and-white Hollywood fantasies, peopled with rich socialites and adventurers and set in the sort of impossibly elegant metropolis in which only Rogers and Astaire and Edward Everett Horton could have lived.

But while she's watching it for the fifth time, one of the actors (Jeff Daniels) begins to watch her. He steps out of the movie, declares that he's bored with saying the same old lines for 2,000 performances, and proceeds to fall in love with her. This is enchanting for a while, but it turns out that he's as one-dimensional as his character in the movie.

In fact, he is the character, and the actor who plays him eventually shows up from Hollywood - to persuade him to re-enter the movie and let him get on with his career. Meanwhile, the movie in the Jewel Theater grinds on with the same group of actors, lost without a plot, performing a kind of avant-garde film that might be called "Six Characters in Search of a Seventh." They talk back to the disgruntled audience, make pronouncements like "I'm an heiress, and I don't have to put up with this" and "I'm a dramatic character; I need forward action," and beg the projectionist not to turn them off. The customers start to complain: "I want what happened last week to happen again. Otherwise, what's life about, anyway?"

Like time-travel stories, this is the sort of idea that opens up all kinds of possibilities, only a few of which can be realized during an 82-minute running time. The movie gets so tricky, in fact, that, like Allen's Zelig, it may try the patience of non-Allen fans who want a little less concept, a little more substance, to their comedies.

The script keeps jumping around, from Farrow to Daniels (as the character) to Daniels (as the actor playing him) to the distressed actors in the film, and it never lands anywhere long enough to give the ending the emotional weight it should have. The movie lacks a center, which Allen himself might have provided if he'd starred in it; it's his first film since Interiors in which he doesn't appear.

Nevertheless, The Purple Rose of Cairo does so well what it does do that it seems petty to complain about what it doesn't. Scene by scene, this is one of the most inventive movies Allen has made, and technically it's seamless. Daniels does wonders with his thinly written dual role, Farrow is suitably blissed-out as the heroine, while Edward Herrmann and Zoe Caldwell smoothly milk the lion's share of the laughs as actors trapped in the film-within-the-film.

As with Zelig, the images and ideas stick with you long after the movie's over. It leaves you wanting more, not less, and that helps keep it alive in your head.