A whimsical 1980s romantic comedy drizzled in saxophone, that transports you back to a particular time and place. I remember finding Roxanne a sweet and fuzzy trifle years ago, but now it’s easier to see some of its creative flaws and the ways in which it has dated.
An adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 verse play “Cyrano de Bergerac”, Roxanne concerns small-town fire chief C.D Bales (Martin); a funny, clever, charismatic, agile man whose only flaw is an exceptionally large nose. Into his life comes beautiful stargazer Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), but this newcomer instead has designs on C.D’s newest fireman, Chris (Rick Rossovich), a likeable hunk who suffers from anxiety around women.
There have been many variations of this story told over the years, so naturally you can’t penalise Roxanne for its predictability. Not least because it’s adapting the root source. Steve Martin wrote the screenplay (having enjoyed the 1950 film adaptation, which won José Ferrer an Oscar for Best Actor) and, for the most part, works in some enjoyable tweaks. You won’t be surprised by any of the turns it takes, but the journey’s fun and it helps if you have a soft spot for American movies set in idyllic small-town communities. The verdant scenery and pleasant atmosphere of Nelson, British Columbia, is one of the movie’s biggest strengths.
Unfortunately, there are undeniable flaws to this tale that I’m now more aware of in middle-age. It’s about people learning to see past physical deformities and be less superficial about their choice of a partner. Chris is a fine physical specimen and an affable guy, but he’s also an idiot driven by his libido. C.D, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of his youthful rival, but burdened by the fact his nose resembles a hot dog. However, C.D is presented as being supremely confident throughout the story, so why doesn’t he think Roxanne could see past his large proboscis? He exhibits no self-consciousness about it that seems believable.
We’re also being asked to hope that “ugly” C.D realises he has a shot with the gorgeous Roxanne, and that she might realise she’s wasting her time on a dim bulb like Chris, but while I understand the moral intention here… it’s frustrating the story is written to such a tired template. Why not have C.D chase a beautiful woman, only to realise he’s the one being shallow and his perfect lover is someone more ordinary? Maybe even a woman who isn’t conventionally attractive either? Saucer-eyed Shelley Duvall co-stars in Roxanne, but maybe she was a red herring for those people expecting something a bit unconventional?
I just think Roxanne takes the obvious and less interesting approach, which was evidently fine for audiences in 1987. But, today, some of its ideas would be overhauled or further complicated. I especially don’t like the hasty way Chris is steered away from Roxanne by instead falling for a waitress who’s on his same wavelength, as it just avoids a greater drama of C.D and Chris really fighting to win Roxanne’s heart.
There are other aspects of the movie that trouble me today—like how C.D is introduced beating up two tennis players, who dared to poke fun at his nose, and he remains a thin-skinned authority figure with a violent streak. He also behaves insanely at times, probably because Martin wanted opportunities to do physical comedy. Consequently, we have scenes like one where C.D buys a newspaper from a vending machine, recoils in faux horror at whatever headline he’s pretended to read, all for the benefit of nobody except the viewers at home.
In revisiting Roxanne, decades later as a different person, Martin’s quirky stylings don’t quite match the measured and quaint tone Fred Schepisi employs everywhere else. I guess Schepisi just had to let Steve Martin do whatever he pleased on camera; after all, he was just an immigrant Aussie filmmaker trying to make a mark in Hollywood, while Martin was one of the biggest stars on the planet in the 1980s.
Still, it’s impossible to hate Roxanne because it has bags of charm and beauty. I also can’t resist the ’80s-ness of movies like this, as they catapult a part of my brain back to being a young boy. We’ve just come a long way with this genre since ’87, and while I don’t enjoy the risque nature of most modern rom-coms, much of Roxanne seems very tame and dawdling now. What I remember being some of its best moments just didn’t land now—like the famous scene in a bar when C.D humiliates a darts player by coming up with twenty nose-related quips better than the man’s one lame insult. It used to be a highlight of the movie (and a key piece of the trailer), but now it’s just a few minutes of lame quips with a cartoonish ending.
Cast & Crew
director: Fred Schepisi.
writer: Steve Martin (based on Edmond Rostand’s ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’).
starring: Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, Shelley Duvall, Rick Rossovich, Fred Willard & Michael J. Pollard.