#219 The Purple Rose Of Cairo

(1985, Woody Allen)

“I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything”

I have never seen a Woody Allen film before. I know he’s supposed to be one of the greatest comedy directors of all time, but I’ve never been too interested in seeing any of his films. Part of it seems to revolve around the fact he always seems to cast himself in the lead role, usually alongside some attractive female lead. So, as an introduction to his movies, let’s pick one where he is not the lead role. Let’s take a look at The Purple Rose Of Cairo.

The Purple Rose Of Cairo is about a woman named Cecilia (Mia Farrow), living in New Jersey during the Great Depression. She loves the cinema, and often goes there to escape her abusive husband Monk (Danny Aiello). The latest movie on show is a fictional movie also named The Purple Rose Of Cairo, which she grows to love and sees it repeatedly. Then one day, one of the characters in the movie, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), breaks the fourth wall and talks to her, before emerging from the screen and running away with her. With the movie studio trying to bring him back into the film and her husband on the warpath, Cecilia needs to decide what to do about this strange situation.

The premise of The Purple Rose Of Cairo really stretches the limits of the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It’s a premise that can’t possibly happen, so it really needs to be handled well in order to make the viewer believe that it is happening. Sadly, Woody Allen failed to make this happen.

The first issue I had with the movie is that everyone felt like they were in a movie from the outset. The dialogue was awkward, the action was stilted and the characters were universally stereotypes.

I can accept limited characterisation in Baxter, since he is a fictional character brought into the real world, and as such his character can only go as far as he’s written. If he encounters something in the real world that has no presence in his movie, it confuses him. The movie plays this up several times, so it’s clearly meant to be deliberate on his part.

It’s just a shame that all this only serves to make everyone else look worse. By saying that his limited characterisation is a result of the limitations of the fictional world he comes from implies that the characters in the real world should therefore be more rounded characters. And it’s a shame because they’re really not.

Cecilia is naïve and meek and quiet and uses film to escape. She’s a potentially tragic character, but the movie doesn’t portray her in this light too well, and she often just comes across as stupid. It’s hard to figure out her motives for anything and she ultimately feels like a bit of a blank slate. Her husband ticks all the boxes on the abusive movie husband checklist. And that’s not to mention the incredibly stereotypical studio bigwigs, all concerned with their own PR and profits at the expense of everything else.

It also doesn’t help that all the dialogue feels uncomfortable. No line in this movie feels like something a real person would say, and I feel Woody Allen needs to go back and consult his Dialogue For Dummies book again, because honestly, this dialogue is terrible.

Ultimately, this results in the movie feeling like a cheap children’s movie from the eighties or nineties rather than a fantasy comedy for adults. Terrible children’s movies often have the same ludicrous premises as this, and keep characterisation simple because kids are too dumb to follow otherwise (or so goes the thinking, despite the existence of things like Spirited Away). It’s not clear what The Purple Rose Of Cairo’s excuse is, especially as it was written for adults, and you’d expect adults want more out of their movies.

And you know what the movie’s biggest crime is? It’s not funny! For a movie that apparently must be seen, written and directed by one of cinema’s supposed comedy greats, I managed to not laugh once. Either I was too bothered by the cardboard dialogue to notice the jokes or perhaps Allen forgot to include them at all. The premise isn’t even that funny or interesting on its own, so he can’t surely have hoped to sustain the movie on that.

Basically, it doesn’t bode well for Allen if this is what I think of the first movie of his that I’ve seen. I can only hope his other films elicit a better reaction from me than this.

Starring Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels & Danny Aiello
Written by Woody Allen
Produced by Robert Greenhut
Music by Dick Hyman
Cinematography by Gordon Willis
Edited by Susan E. Morse

Favourite Scene: Nothing springs to mind, unfortunately.
Scene That Bugged Me: The entire clumsily-handled central premise.

Watch it if: You’re an adult who likes terrible kids’ movies
Avoid it if: You like comedies to be actually funny


Posted on September 19, 2013, in 1980s, Comedy, Romance and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. The Purple Rose of Cairo isn’t really a laugh out loud comedy. I’m not sure why you expected that. Some might argue it ins’t really a comedy. Most Woody Allen films aren’t straight comedies. Maybe some of the earlier stuff but hardly any of the later stuff. But I understand, Woody Allen films are an acquired taste. They aren’t for everyone. Thanks for the post though It was nice to read your honest opinion.

    • I expected it because everything I’ve heard about Woody Allen paints him as a comedy director. Even the description of this movie in the Movies You Must See book include things like “This sublime nostalgic comedy” and “hilarious one-liners”, so it’s pretty clear where I got that expectation from.

      I would have been willing to accept it as something other than a comedy though, since there are other movies that have pleasantly proven to be different to what I expected when I reviewed them, but I honestly didn’t feel Purple Rose worked too well as a drama or even a fantasy movie either. If I’d been hooked into the drama of it, I wouldn’t have cared that it wasn’t that funny to me, but the fact that it felt clumsy as a drama merely amplified its lack of comedy in my eyes.

      Thanks for the comment though! It’s much appreciated!

  2. The only thing I can say is, Woody Allen is a genre onto himself. I don’t consider him a comic director, regardless of what people say. It’s hard to put my finger on what genre a lot of his films fall into. He started out as a stand up comedian but I enjoy his movies more for the characters, not their jokes or laughs. He is a writers director. When I first started watching his film, I really didn’t understand the tone but once my brain became accustomed to the language of his films, I really enjoy them. I’ve seen all of them now. Some are much better than others. Like I said, they aren’t for everybody so we will agree to disagree.

    Woody Allen actually considers The Purple Rose of Cairo to be one of his best films so I’m not sure you will enjoy the rest. I appreciate that you took your time and reviewed on how it appealed to you and not regurgitate what other people have said. So kudos on that.

  1. Pingback: #309 Hannah And Her Sisters | Sven vs. The Movies

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