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"I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything."—Cecilia
In 1930s New Jersey, Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a downtrodden waitress with an abusive husband and little to look forward to in her daily life. She escapes her troubles by going to the movies as often as she can and getting lost in beautiful love stories. In the latest movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo, a charming archeologist named Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) falls in love with a glamorous nightclub singer. After losing her job, Cecilia tries to raise her spirits by going to see the film another time. Unexpectedly, Tom Baxter walks right off the screen and into Cecilia's life.
Tom's exit from the movie causes an uproar as the characters left in the film fight amongst themselves. Suddenly, Tom Baxters in other screenings are trying to leave their theaters and audiences have no idea how to handle it. Real life actor Gil Shepherd (also Jeff Daniels) is forced to track down his character Tom and convince him to go back into the movie. But Tom has fallen in love with Cecilia and she must decide whether to live a life of fantasy or reality.
This film provides examples of:
- The Alcoholic: Monk blames whiskey for his hot temper and abusive behavior.
- Art Initiates Life: Tom walks out of the screen and Gil becomes convinced it's up to him to force Tom to go back into the film.
- The Beautiful Elite: The characters in the films that Cecilia watches.
Tom: I don't get hurt or bleed, hair doesn't muss; it's one of the advantages of being imaginary.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: An in-universe example. After Tom walks out of the screen, the other characters are able to interact with audience all the time.
Movie Patron: You can't talk to my wife that way! Who do you think you are?
The Countess: I'm a genuine countess with a lot of dough, and it that's your wife she's a tub of guts.
- Deconstructor Fleet: The entire film plays fast and loose with the fourth wall as the line blurs between fantasy and reality. There's also a good deal of lampshade hanging.
- Doppelganger Replacement Love Interest: Played with. And then brutally subverted. Gil was never in love with Cecilia and only used her to convince Tom to go back into the movie.
- Domestic Abuse: Cecilia and Monk both reference occasions when Monk got drunk and hit Cecilia. Monk defends his actions by saying he only hits Cecilia when she "gets out of line".
- Downer Ending: Cecilia leaves her husband once and for all and plans to run away with Gil. He stands her up and was only using her to get Tom back into the movie where he belonged. Cecilia is left to cry alone in the movie theater as she watches the new film of the week.
- However, there's a hint that this time Fred Astaire will leave the screen to be with her. Not so downer after all.
- Crapsack World: As the film is set during The Great Depression, life is awfully bleak. The ending proves just how cruel the real world is compared to the movies.
- Fade to Black:
- While on a date with Cecilia, Tom expects a Sexy Discretion Shot to interrupt them once they start kissing.
- The theater manager suggests turning the projector off after Tom exits the film but the characters object.
Harry: No! No! Don't turn the projector off! No! No! It gets black and we disappear!
- Fainting: A woman in the theater faints when Tom walks out of the screen. Later, Kitty passes out when she finds out Cecilia is real.
- Frothy Mugs of Water: Once inside the film herself, Cecilia discovers the champagne is actually ginger ale.
- The Gambler: Monk spends what little money he has either on alcohol, card games, or penny pitching.
- Greasy Spoon: The diner where Cecilia and her sister waitress.
- The Great Depression
- Growing Up Sucks: Cecilia learns the hard way about how cruel and self-serving people can be when Gil uses her just to further his own career.
- Hey, It's That Guy!:
- Hidden Depths: Arturo the waiter reveals his hidden talent for tap-dancing after the film-within-a-film takes on a life of its own.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Emma.
- I Wish It Were Real: Played with. Cecilia watches films because she wishes life was as romantic as in the movies. But after Tom walks out of the movie, reality becomes even harsher because of his innocence about the real world.
- Nice Character, Mean Actor: Tom Baxter is charming and perfect while Gil Shepherd is an egotistical Jerkass.
- Real World Episode: Tom Baxter lives in a movie while Cecilia lives in reality. He is incredibly innocent about several "real world" things.
- Refugee From TV Land: Tom walks out the film because he wants to meet Cecilia. Later, Tom takes Cecilia back with him into the movie for a date.
- Sexy Discretion Shot: Tom is amazed that people in the real world can make love without a Fade to Black.
Tom: How fascinating. You make love without fading out?
Tom: Well, I can't wait to see this!
- Show Within a Show: The Purple Rose of Cairo is the title of the film Cecilia loves so much.
- This Is Reality: Cecilia has a hard time figuring out how to accept Tom's affection because he is imaginary.
- Trapped in TV Land: Played with. No one is trapped but it's clear that characters are meant to stay in their films and the audience is meant to stay in the real world. Tom easily brings Cecilia back with him into the film for a date and they easily step back into the real world again.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist:
- Cecilia, to an extent, because of how much she believes in fantasy.
- Tom more so because he lives in a movie.
- Wife-Basher Basher: Tom offers to rough Monk up the next time he raises a hand to Cecilia. After all, it was written into his character to do it.
- Your Cheating Heart:
- Monk has had several affairs in the past.
- Cecilia feels guilty for dating Tom because of her marriage to Monk.