There are few directors as divisive as Woody Allen. Even before his personal life exploded across the front page of every tabloid in America, the director's work typically attracted a small bicoastal audience that appreciated his pseudo-intellectual hyper-neurotic New York shtick. Despite the critical accolades and numerous Oscar showings, few of Allen's movies actually turned a profit.
Although his work in the '70s garnered the most respect and established Woody as a member of the holy trinity of film auteurs (along with Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese), it was the early '80s that saw the director stretch his creative wings and indulge in great flights of imagination. Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo married cinematic nostalgia with narrative invention to produce films that bubbled with gentle humor and bittersweet sentimentality.
Of the three, the magically romantic Purple Rose resonated strongest with flesh-and-blood characters and a true beating heart. In some ways, this was a first for Allen. Much of his earlier work relied on caricature and shtick. Love was depicted as a painfully ridiculous malady that turned neurotics into psychotics and drove the depressed into despair. With Purple Rose, Allen softened his more misanthropic instincts and displayed a rare moment of humanity. Not surprisingly, it was the first comedy where he didn't play the leading man and the first time a woman was cast as the protagonist.
Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a timid Depression-era housewife trapped in a marriage with a penny-pinching bum (Danny Aiello), finds sanctuary at the local bijou watching her favorite film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, again and again. One day Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), the film's archeologist hero, magically steps off the screen to be with his adoring fan. His decision to join the real world sends the movie studio, the theater owner and the actor who plays him (Daniels again), into a panicked tailspin. They beg Cecilia to convince their leading man to return to his film world before they're financially ruined. Worse, Tom discovers that life on the other side of the screen is a lot less noble and chaste than the fantasy world he left behind.
A paean to Hollywood's golden era, Purple Rose is an absurd fantasy that celebrates the innocence of escapist movies while simultaneously commenting on how people distract themselves from the harshness of reality to the point of weakness. There's an interesting, though undercooked, subtext to the film as Woody struggles to show his love of old movies while demonstrating how Hollywood ultimately corrupts the soul. Luckily, Allen's pretensions and remarkable gift for casting saves the day.
Chelsea's favorite son Jeff Daniels was considered an unlikely leading man when he inherited the dual roles of Tom and Gil from Michael Keaton (whom Woody fired for being "too much"). His ability to yo-yo between wide-eyed chivalry and movie star ambitions dispelled any reservations and, in many ways, launched his career. As Cecilia, Farrow delivers such a sympathetic and endearing performance that even Allen's most inane moments work. She's an underappreciated actress with a remarkable sense of comic timing. Similarly, Aiello is terrific as Farrow's loutish husband.
As the bridge between Woody Allen's best comedies and his more serious-minded (yet less successful) comic dramas, Purple Rose is an interesting midcareer work. Despite its downbeat ending, it has enough whimsy and lighthearted charm to keep Allen's most acrid pretensions at bay and, oddly enough, has been cited as the filmmaker's favorite film.
Showing at 7:15 p.m., Thursday, June 1, and 6:30 p.m., Sunday, June 4, at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463). Jeff Daniels will host a Q&A session after the Thursday screening.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.