It's the Depression. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) works with her sister in a diner and then goes home to Monk (Danny Aiello), her out-of-work husband who spends his days pitching pennies and complaining about his lack of opportunity and his nights shouting for his dinner and whacking Cecilia around.
But a new film has opened at the local cinema, The Purple Rose of Cairo. It features a handsome, romantic supporting character named Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) and Cecilia, eager to escape, spends her evenings watching Purple Rose over and over.
Writer/director Woody Allen then uses a technical gimmick as the springboard for a terrific romantic fantasy. During one showing, Baxter steps out of the movie, having fallen for Cecilia during her numerous viewings.
Of course, something like this cannot happen without repercussions. Primarily, the movie cannot continue, leaving the remaining characters stuck in a drawing room scene with nothing to do but wait for Tom to return. Soon, the news reaches Gil Shepherd (also Daniels), the actor who played Baxter, that his "creation" has left the film and may be wreaking havoc along the New Jersey coastline -- with his face! In order to salvage his newly burgeoning career, Gil immediately hops a plane to New Jersey, where he also falls for Cecilia.
Thus, our heroine, once unhappy in an abusive relationship now has two -- albeit very similar-looking --attractive men fighting over her. Tom wants to stay in the real world where people make love without "fading out," but Gil wants him to go back. They make Cecilia choose between them.
The details are what make The Purple Rose of Cairo so delightful. Tom Baxter's introduction to the real world where people make love but don't "fade out," where bravery is required because "it's written into my character," but also where cars require keys to start and where his "movie money" is worthless (which they unfortunately only find out after finishing a sumptuous meal).
Daniels portrays the wide-eyed innocence of Baxter with relish. And his more worldly portrayal of actor Gil Shepherd is a tribute to his ability. Add to that the difficulty inherent in having a heated conversation with "yourself" and this is one of Daniels' greatest performances.
I said that Allen used a gimmick, and that is true. But what I like about it is that it is never explained. How Tom walks off the screen isn't important -- or even shown -- and would have slowed down the story. That he does walk off is what matters.
I'm not going to tell you who Cecilia chooses, or the aftereffects of that choice. But the ending is the one that had to be. It's the only one that feels right. After all -- and I think this is the film's main message -- you can only escape into filmland for so long; eventually you have to come back to real life.