Directed by Fred Schepisi; produced by Steve Martin (executive producer), Daniel Melnick and Michael Rachmil
I was never a fan of Steve Martin’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ period, and I think it was Roxanne that made me see that there was more to the man than manic humour. This is an adaptation of the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, an adventure-romance about a man with a ludicrously large nose in love with a beautiful woman. Ashamed of his appearance, Cyrano does nothing but when his handsome young friend, Christian, wants to woo the girl, Cyrano agrees to use his way with words to bring the two together. Initially, he does this simply because of his innate kindness, but then he begins to put his own heart into the letters that he writes on Christian’s behalf.
In Roxanne the story is updated to modern times. Cyrano becomes C. D. (Charlie) Bales, a shop-owner and volunteer fireman in a small Rocky Mountains resort town. Roxanne is a visiting astronomer and Chris is a professional fire-fighter in town to instruct the volunteers.
This is a fun, funny movie, driven by Martin’s performance. He was once quoted as saying that after this movie was released, he received from the entertainment industry what he had not been given before: respect. It is easy to see why. The comedy is not the ad hoc, almost immature lunacy for which he was known, but a restrained situational humour. There are moments of silliness, and jokes added without reference to the story (witness my favourite sight-gag involving Martin’s reaction to a newspaper) but these are in character, whether it is Martin’s character or that of the story.
C. D. Bales is an instantly sympathetic person. In the first scene, he is accosted by a couple of jerks who, to their cost, make fun of his nose. At first Bales literally goes out of his way to avoid trouble, but no doubt having had a lifetime of such abuse, he does not submit to it lightly. He is clearly a well-liked and respected member of the community.
That community is peopled by funny individuals who are nonetheless realistic, not ‘quirky’ for the sake of procuring laughs. They are, in fact, mostly decent people you wouldn’t mind meeting. The good nature of the characters is part of the charm of the film, which was shot in Nelson, British Columbia (though set in the U.S.). Roxanne is proof that comedy need not be acerbic or insulting in order to be amusing. There are unpleasant characters, but they get what they deserve in an old-fashioned way.
Notable is the number of stand-up comics and comic actors who appear in small parts in the film. Fred Willard, Kevin Nealon and Damon Wayans are probably the most recognizable, but any regular viewer of late-night talk-shows from the late ‘eighties would know many of the cast by sight, if not by name. Large Max Alexander, chinless Steve Mittleman, gravel-voiced Ritch Shydner and Australian Maureen Murphy all play parts. And there’s irony in Michael J Pollard stating that C. D. Bales is “kind of funny-looking.”
There are flaws, however; one being, I think, the casting of the title character. Daryl Hannah lacked the appeal that persuaded me that several men would fall almost instantly in love with her, and her chemistry with Martin produced only a mild reaction. And she is, frankly, miscast as any sort of academic. As well, the resolution of Chris’s involvement was weak. But it is a measure of the success of other elements that these, which should be central problems, are not great.
When I first saw Roxanne I thought that Martin - and audiences - would benefit from more of his adaptations of classics, to which he could give a unique interpretation. Here, he showed himself capable of good writing and versatile acting, creating a character who was amusing, sad, decent and involving. Some years later, Martin came out with A Simple Twist of Fate, based on Silas Marner, a more dramatic production than Roxanne but with touches of humour. Unfortunately, nothing further of their kind was forthcoming. So Roxanne stands as one of Martin’s shining moments, an enjoyable film to watch with friends, a date or alone with a big bowl of popcorn.