In Roxanne, Steve Martin takes yet another gamble in a career that has featured some curious and daring choices (including the wildly downbeat Pennies From Heaven and the experimental Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid). This time he’s adapted Cyrano de Bergerac for modern times.
Now, just imagine the studio heads listening to this idea: A classical play. About a guy with a freakish long nose. Chivalry and romance and unrequited love: Riiiiight, Steve.
Well, Martin pulls it off, which is more than you can say for his formidable rubber honker, which remains firmly in the middle of his face throughout this film. His screenplay casts Cyrano, called Charlie, as a firefighter in a contemporary Northwest town; Charlie’s 6-inch nose does not stop him from being a witty, romantically inclined fellow.
Roxanne (Daryl Hannah) is an astronomer, who moves to the town to work on some experiments during the summer. Charlie is, as they used to say, smitten, but Roxanne has eyes for a hunky new firefighter (Rick Rossovich). And so it follows that Charlie, his heart aching, helps his inarticulate friend woo the fair Roxanne.
Roxanne is a genuine romantic comedy, a species that some of us thought had disappeared from the big screen altogether. Martin’s true romantic impulses show through; this is an amusing movie, but its heart is unashamedly in its throat.
It would have been hard to predict that the Australian director Fred Schepisi would be such a good director of this material; after all, this is the man who made the intense Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Plenty. But Schepisi’s elegant widescreen images give rich and quirky support to the comedy.
He beautifully captures the look and feel of this small town. Roxanne was filmed in Nelson, British Columbia, where the streets slope oddly against the gorgeous forest backdrop. Schepisi gets a marvelous sense of the places these people inhabit – the firehouse, a bar, a cafe owned by Charlie’s pal (Shelley Duvall) – and he lets the characters establish a reality and depth that not many comedies bother with.
The film comes up a bit short in Roxanne’s character, which is underwritten. Schepisi depends upon Daryl Hannah’s charms to carry the role. Which is not a terrible sin, come to think of it.
But this is really Steve Martin’s finest hour. His script and his performance are full of wacky little asides, offbeat moments. There’s an incredible show-stopping scene that has him reciting 20 comic put-downs of his large schnozz to a full audience at the bar. Not all 20 jokes are funny, but the audacity of the scene is remarkable.
It’s a deft physical performance. From the opening scene, in which Cyrano’s rapiers are replaced by dueling tennis rackets, Martin’s movements are precise and graceful. The look on his face when he thinks Roxanne is about to ask him out, his pixilated ecstasy when he hears the mayor (Fred Willard) has chosen a cow for a town mascot, his catlike walk down main street when sniffing an incipient fire – this is wonderful work. And this work animates a lovely movie.
First published in the Herald, June 18, 1987
Not sure whether it’s Martin’s finest hour or not, but a nice film nonetheless, even if this review reads a little forced. I’ve always wanted to visit the town of Nelson, which looks utterly charming on screen. Schepisi’s career, after a certain point, is truly baffling, although he clearly is a gifted filmmaker; Pauline Kael got pretty feverish about him during this period, and (if I’m remembering right) was all in for Iceman and Roxanne.