Roxanne (1987)

Dir. Fred Schepisi. Starring Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, Shelley Duvall

I’ve been watching this movie for, oh, fifteen years or so now, but it’s taken me until this most recent viewing to see what Fred Schepisi saw when he was making this movie. (Maybe I was dazzled by the pitch-perfect ’80s theme by Bruce Smeaton, which makes “Careless Whisper” sound like it’s using an oboe by comparison.) Roxanne was shot in British Columbia, in the tourist town of Nelson, and it is a gorgeous, green setting so unlike what Schepisi had made in Australia and what he would make in the upcoming years. When C.D. (Martin) and Roxanne (Hannah) are lugging a telescope up to the top floor of her summer rental, Schepisi begins that in a wide shot that allows you to see some of the natural beauty casually resting behind them. The scene where Roxanne tells C.D. that she’s fallen for the hunky new fireman, Chris McConnell (Rick Rossovich), is set with this unbelievable mountain grandeur behind it, emerald green with summer and with the mountains in the backdrop. Even when we’re in cute little town mode rather than big wide world mode, Schepisi loves finding ways to show how often someone would have to walk uphill just to get to where s/he wants to go. C.D. isn’t much for cars, and so we get to see him traversing those hilly roads over and over again. In the beginning, when he fights two men with ski poles with a borrowed tennis racket, he meets them on an incline. When he realizes that the fire department guys have failed to put the ladder down before driving away from a rescued cat in triumph, he chases after them gesticulating wildly and running uphill.

Roxanne is a neat adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, which even the groundlings among us recognize once we see the size of Steve Martin’s prosthetic nose in this, but what makes it neat is how smart the cuts from the original play are. It has the answer for why a 20th Century man can’t just get plastic surgery for this wild schnozz: C.D. is allergic to anesthetics. (The local doctor is unimpressed with C.D.’s various witticisms and complaints during an impromptu consultation, such as, “I want to look like…Diana Ross.”) Turning the worrisome Le Bret into the the composed Dixie (Duvall) is an easy choice, as is removing the Comte de Guiche. Managing to keep that sequence where Cyrano does his spaceman bit despite the dearth of the scheming nobleman is, frankly, inspired. Rather than slowing a rival suitor for Roxanne, it’s a way to hasten some interlopers to interrupt potential coitus between Roxanne and her handsome man. The film even manages to give out a slick one-liner to a minor character here, one of my favorites in the whole screenplay. When C.D. asks what day it is, the response from one of the old women he’s nearly fallen on is prompt: “It’s Friday. Dallas is on.”

I’ve always thought turning the 17th Century barracks into a 20th Century firehouse was a nice touch. Rank and skill and local notoriety and a chain of command can be kept in place, but where the potential for humor is so much greater. All it takes is that wonderful first scene in the firehouse, where there’s a trash can merrily blazing away right underneath the pole, to see the potential. “God damn it,” C.D. shouts, “we’re supposed to put them out!” The montages of firefighter training are delightful opportunities to get Michael J. Pollard and Damon Wayans and Fred Willard some extra jokes. Willard, playing the bombastic mayor of Nelson with dreams of turning the town into another Aspen, makes the most of what can’t be more than three or four minutes of screentime. Sometimes he gets to do joke setup, like the bit about the “Nelson promotional cow” that allows Steve Martin a chance to riff for a full minute. And then there’s that delightful little toast he gives: “I would rather be with the people of this town than with the finest people in the world!” Roxanne is a generous movie in that way. Martin and Hannah are the stars, and Rossovich gets arguably the movie’s funniest scene, but the fact that almost everyone gets a little moment to glow adds to the warmth of the picture. This is another question of adaptation; rather than being set in a Parisian niche, Nelson is small enough that everyone knows each other, recognizes each other, sees each other.

The backdrop in Roxanne is probably more interesting than the A-plot of the film, and this is the one place that Martin can’t quite figure out how to make this thing update three hundred and fifty years. It’s not that the letters don’t make sense as a way to woo someone, but that the poetry of C.D.’s language when he’s finally getting his opening with Roxanne always feels a little weird. It’s not a fault of Martin’s delivery, which feels about as honest as you can expect. And it’s not the fault of Martin’s writing, either, because while some of that stuff smells hokey (yeah, who knew we used “love” too much in our advertising?), there are other lines where you kind of believe in this guy with genuine eloquence, e.g. “Why should we sip from a tea cup when we can drink from the river?” All the same this is less than the sum of its parts, and it’s hard for the movie to be great when the most important piece of the picture is less potent than the comic scenes before it and after it. Before it, C.D. is trying to use shortwave radio to feed Chris the right lines to say to Roxanne, which leads to some of my favorite reaction shots ever as C.D. smacks the heck out of his radio when it starts picking up other frequencies. After it, Steve Martin’s stunt double falls sideways out of a tree and makes a huge THUD in front of a gaggle of senior ladies.

Maybe part of the problem is that it’s tough to believe in the chemistry between Daryl Hannah and, well, anyone in this movie. Hannah is miscast here. Her best performances are in truly weird, occasionally grotesque roles: Pris in Blade Runner, Elle Driver in Kill Bill Vol. 2, Madison in Splash. There’s nothing weird about Roxanne. Roxanne is a forerunner of Ione Skye in Say Anything, a “brain, trapped in the body of a game show hostess.” There’s a problem with both, which is that they’re two potentially weird actresses trapped in a movie that basically needs them prim. Just as Skye shows a real talent for abrasiveness in Gas Food Lodging, Hannah’s got a gift for raising every eyebrow in the cineplex. But in a movie where there are plenty of jokes to go around for everyone else, Hannah barely gets anything. The running gag where she rejects Chuck (John Kapelos), volunteer fireman by night and taxidermy salesman by day, is funny because Chuck gets humiliated, not because Hannah gets anything that special. Roxanne stands still a lot in this movie, a physical condition that basically reveals what the character does. Roxanne comes to Nelson so she can wait for her comet to show up and help her get a doctorate; she basically waits in Nelson until the comet shows up and her One True Love with a nose big enough for four or five of those True Loves.

Ironically, the scene with the most chemistry in the movie doesn’t have C.D. or Roxanne in it. Chris, who has this total inability to speak to women (or, as it turns out, to turn on faucets properly when the women are too close), finds a girl who’s on the same level as him. The unkind way to put it is that Sandy (Shandra Beri) is stupid as Chris is stupid. A more accurate way to put it is that both of them are basically sheltered people who dream of making their late twenties and early thirties more romantic. The thought of a man who has been to San Francisco, Las Vegas, and New York City despite growing up in Albuquerque is practically erotic for Chris. It turns out that what Chris was afraid of was rejection or inadequacy rather than womankind as a race; when it’s so clear that Sandy is totally hooked on him, he actually turns out to have a little game. A scene where the two of them bond at the end of one of her shifts at the bar is probably the hottest scene in the entire picture. I’d be inclined to call this a mistake, but again, that’s unkind more than it is accurate. C.D. and Roxanne go together because they are right for each other, not because he could, as he suggests in one scene, pleasure multiple women at once. Chris and Sandy are right for each other. If Roxanne is as romantic as my heart tells me it is, it’s romantic for that reason. It’s a movie about people finding each other who suit one another. It’s a valentine, once again, written for Cyrano de Bergerac, a play where the miracle of Cyrano finding Roxanne is just about as good as Cyrano holding onto her could have been.

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