As a general rule, I'm not a fan of Woody Allen. I find his neurotic self-absorption and flippant yet pretentious sense of humor all but unbearable and rarely find him as witty, clever, or innovative as many critics seem to, so I went into The Purple Rose of Cairo with no little skepticism.
The premise of the movie - a movie character walks off the screen and into the arms of a sweet girl in the audience - essentially reverses the plot of Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr., in which a projectionist dreams himself and the girl he loves into the movie he's showing. Mia Farrow plays a waitress, Cecilia, on the outs with her boss, married to a lout who spends all his time on dice, and who, more than anything else, loves the movies. The Great Depression is in full swing and the movies that bring a smile to her face are musicals and pictures about high society people in exotic locales. Then one day, the character of Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), "honest, dependable, courageous, romantic, and a great kisser," walks off the screen because he's fallen in love with Cecilia and wants to be real.
Allen plays down the fantastic element of this premise, with copious dialogue from the vast majority of characters commenting on the impossibility of a fictional character walking around in the real world and expressing outrage and astonishment. The porousness of the screen is never explained, but once the Hollywood actor who plays Tom (also Jeff Bridges) arrives to try to corral his double back into the movie, Cecilia has to decide between the real and the imaginary. Her choice is predictable, but Allen denies us the expected Hollywood happily-ever-after. Those sorts of endings are only for the movies.
In essence, The Purple Rose of Cairo is an extended riff on one joke. Sometimes it works brilliantly, particularly with the scenes of the movie-within-the-movie's characters alternately panicking and whining because they can't continue the picture. Van Johnson, star of studio pictures like In the Good Old Summertime and The Last Time I Saw Paris, has a delicious, and easy-to-miss cameo as one of the disgruntled characters. However, Allen, though he may be known for his 'witty' dialogue, doesn't have a perfect ear for the the snappy, slang-ridden writing of '30s cinema. A clunky self-consciousness steals into a lot of the lines in the movie-within-a-movie, which is too obviously a pastiche and never convinces as a real hit picture. The best lines are less willfully cartoonish and quite quotable: "I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything;" "I'm sorry. It's written into my character to do it, so I do it;" or "I don't get hurt or bleed, hair doesn't muss; it's one of the advantages of being imaginary." The movie is most convincing, not to mention most fun, when Allen uses a softer, lighter touch, in a totally different register than, say, the zany slapstick of Sleeper or the arch flippancy of Annie Hall and Manhattan. But even in this more bittersweet mode, The Purple Rose of Cairo feels wafer-thin, like a short film extended to feature-length.
In part, this is because the movie drags in an element of intellectual theory - implicit references to Pirandello, Deleuze, and Kracauer - that it can't quite bear. The movie's structure depends on a strict demarcation between the real and the fictional that a body can pass over as though going through a door, but the two worlds never actually fuse or collide: the boundary is stable. While ostensibly examining the blurring of reality and a fictive world, The Purple Rose of Cairo actually enforces the stark difference between the two. Many of the wittier lines rely on this; for instance, someone points out that, in the movie-within-the-movie, the champagne is really ginger ale. (Some of the clunkier plot elements, such as Tom Baxter's fake money, do as well.) Yet, even the earliest film theories and philosophies have subtler things to say on the issue of the 'real' vs. the cinematic. All Allen really does is point out the commonsensical difference and the fact that a real person can't inhabit a fictive world for long. Heck, Keaton's film is vastly more intellectually complex.
Allen also shoehorns a critique of religion, attempting to make it dovetail with a confused notion of the screenwriters as gods, which is both philosophically muddled and badly integrated into the film as a whole (though in one moment, rather funny - when the movie-within-the-movie's priest insists that nowhere in the Bible does it say a priest can't be imaginary). Cecilia brings Tom to a church as part of his education in the real world and where he ends up getting beaten up by Cecilia's irate husband. This scene occurs in a church in order to set up Tom's later naive line about "thinking about very deep things." Tom is a wee bit of an airhead, but what he's saying about the screenwriters as gods is actually supported by and large by the movie, rather than criticized, or even complicated. There's something grating to me about a critique of religion that is so flat-footed and intellectually vacuous, a potshot that veers off into nothing.
Even so, there are more things to like in The Purple Rose of Cairo than to dislike: the jazzy score by Nick Hyman, Diane Wiest in a small, though glam role as a red-lipsticked prostitute, the evocatively sparkling sets and costumes for the movie-within-the-movie. It's a relief to have Allen kept off-camera and it's a pleasure to look at such a meticulous recreation of a small New Jersey town in the '30s. While I wouldn't go anywhere near calling The Purple Rose of Cairo a masterpiece, I would call it the high point of Allen's career.