Woody Allen’s lustrous Eighties period hit so many high points and was so rich with singular concepts (Stardust Memories, Radio Days, Another Woman, Zelig!) that the delicate The Purple Rose of Cairo seems like a particularly nimble trifle. But what a trifle! The ending is rightfully regaled–it’s the entire point of the movie boiled down to one wistful, empathetic shot of Mia Farrow’s trembling porcelain face. The closing image of Purple Rose is so powerful and speaks so much about movie-watching (it’s the viewer’s response to the closing of Sunset Boulevard), that it’s easy to forget that there’s so much joy that comes before the sorrow.
Farrow embodies sweet movie nostalgia as Depression-era waitress Cecilia, lost in moviegoing to escape financial and emotional instability and a loveless marriage to a craps-shooting deadbeat (a pre-Do the Right Thing Danny Aiello, with flashes of the rage to come); yet it’s Jeff Daniels’s smart double turn as both the blissed-out pith-helmeted Tom Baxter, who steps off the movie screen to experience the unscripted real world, and the arrogant movie star who plays him, Gil Shepherd, that holds the film together and gives it its goofy, slapdash charm. Baxter’s experiences in a brothel (with Allen’s always terrific mainstay Dianne Wiest as an improbable whore) seem like tacked-on bawdy merriment, yet Daniels’s little-boy-in-a-candy-store grin puts the whole thing over the top.
Naturally, Purple Rose never reaches the inventive heights of its obvious progenitor, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., but only Radio Days has surpassed it in purity of directorial vision. If there’s a certain lack of conflict and an overall timidity in the project (even with that heartbreaker of an ending, the stakes never seemed all that high), Woody Allen’s decision to let the whimsy play out naturally without a surplus of snazzy one-liners or philosophical rantings make it one of the most memorable high-concept one-offs of his career. Of course, it should be seen in the theater, with Mia looking back at you as you both sit in the dark. Today and tomorrow, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, at Film Forum.