For a decade that’s remembered chiefly for being garish, greedy and narcissistic there’s still a surprising amount of charm in many of the comedy movies from the 1980s, a good number of them featuring Steve Martin (think of The Man with Two Brains, Three Amigos! or Planes, Trains and Automobiles). Mixing in swearing, some bite, wit and sentimentality, they were big hits that people still love today.
Roxanne was Martin’s version of Edmond Rostand’s late 19th century play Cyrano de Bergerac and here he writes as well as stars. Following the broad outline of that play it features Martin as C.D. Bales, fire chief in a small town. Bales is smart, funny, a bit of an oddball and good at pretty much everything. But he also has a huge nose, and this has meant Bales has deemed himself unlovable. He can’t have surgery because he’s allergic to anaesthetic and most everyone in the town knows not to mention his schnoz anyway, so C.D. just gets on with life, convincing himself he’s happy with his lot.
That is until astronomy grad student Roxanne (Daryl Hannah) starts staying in town while she searches for a new comet. Sadly for the smitten Bales, Roxanne is attracted to new arrival firefighter Chris (Rick Rossovich) and when through rom-com hijinks she’s convinced Chris’ otherwise dim exterior hides the soul of a poet, Bales ends up helping his love rival win her over. Complications inevitably and amusingly ensue.
In the ‘80s Martin was very good at this type of gig. There weren’t many people, either as actor or writer, who do that mixture of occasionally sickly and borderline misanthropic as well as he could. Roxanne is more evidence of his skill in this. The town is a believable place, the characters all warm and lived in. Hannah is at her most winsome as the object of affection, and as an educated woman, agreeably not-too-movie-stupid despite the silliness that surrounds her. Martin as writer gives everyone a good character to work with, as demonstrated most with Chris. In someone else’s hands he’d simply be a dreadful idiot just so we could feel good about disliking him, but here Martin and Rossovich make him dumbly layered in his way, too.
Amongst the considerable good that makes up this film, it has one of Martin’s finest moments in it - the 20 nose jokes scene. It typifies everything that makes Roxanne a deserved minor classic - some edge, heart and genuine good humour goes into it. If you could criticise the film, it’s a little bit cornball at times and the required late act conflict is predictably shoehorned in, but that didn't harm Coming to America and it’s the same here.
A sweet, funny and heartfelt film, Roxanne avoids being cloying or too much like unlikely wish fulfilment for Bales. If you like this type of film it’s a great example of whimsical romantic comedy done well.
ROXANNE (1987) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: FRED SCHEPISI / SCREENPLAY: STEVE MARTIN / STARRING: STEVE MARTIN, DARYL HANNAH, RICK ROSSOVICH, SHELLEY DUVALL, JOHN KAPELOS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW