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With: Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, Rick Rossovich, Shelley Duvall, John Kapelos, Fred Willard, Max Alexander, Michael J. Pollard, Steve Mittleman, Damon Wayans, Matt Lattanzi, Shandra Beri, Blanche Rubin, Jane Campbell, Jean Sincere, Kevin Nealon
Written by: Steve Martin
Directed by: Fred Schepisi
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 107
Date: 06/19/1987
IMDB

Roxanne (1987)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Nose Knows

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Smart and dumb play pivotal roles in Steve Martin's brilliant 1987 comedy Roxanne. Saddled with a huge physical handicap, Martin's character C.D. Bales (based on Cyrano de Bergerac) has had to compensate by becoming smart, funny, agile and athletic. The first time we meet him, he outwits -- and outfights -- two bullies on the street using a tennis racquet and some perfectly pitched one-liners.

C.D. Bales lives in a small town named Nelson (really Canada) where he serves as the fire chief. Dixie (Shelley Duvall) runs the local lunch counter, the mayor (Fred Willard) tries to adopt a cow as a town mascot, and Michael J. Pollard (from Bonnie and Clyde) helps run the fire department. Everybody knows C.D. and loves him, but they all fear his wrath if anyone says anything about his nose, which pokes out about six inches from his face.

Two new people breeze into town, upsetting the local balance. Chris (Rick Rossovich) joins the fire department, while Roxanne (Daryl Hannah) rents a house high on a hill so that she can work on her astronomy project -- hunting for a new comet. Clearly smart herself, Roxanne is tired of dumb guys and thinks maybe the cute Chris might be the one for her (a series of coincidences convinces her that Chris may have a brain).

Unfortunately, not only is Chris an imbecile, but he's physically unable to speak to women without throwing up. He turns to C.D. -- who has also understandably fallen for Roxanne -- for help. Here's where the Cyrano plot kicks in. Not only does C.D. write letters for Chris but they cook up a new twist, using the fire department's radio to broadcast romantic tidbits from C.D.'s mouth to Chris' ears.

Martin plays with the smart-dumb conundrum in inspired ways. In one key scene, C.D. climbs up on the roof to help out a fat kid who looks like he's going to jump. But when C.D. finds out that the kid has been teased at school, he asks "why do they have to do that?" and simply sits with the boy for a long moment. It's a slightly mawkish scene, but it's a good question, too -- one of the things smart people don't understand. Later, when C.D. is sure Roxanne doesn't love him, he again climbs up on the roof to contemplate things. (We see how easy it is for C.D. to get up there with his amazing gymnastic abilities -- years of climbing up on rooftops?)

The movie's most talked-about scene has C.D. cooking up 20 "something betters" to show up a guy who has called him "Big Nose." It's hilarious in a jaw-dropping kind of way as C.D. thinks of categorical insults, Religious, Playful, and, yes, Dirty. But this scene's opposite has Chris meeting and talking to a pretty bartender -- not quite as spectacular as Roxanne -- but more Chris' speed. Martin plays out their dumb-person conversation for a painfully long time. So long, in fact, that it comes around to being human again. We no longer see these characters as smart or dumb, just people.

Steve Martin's winning performance and his brilliant screenplay make up most of Roxanne's success, but Fred Schepisi's direction completes it. A member of Australia's new wave, Schepisi came to America after proving himself with the still hard-to-find The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and made a name for himself with solid Hollywood for-hire films like Barbarosa (1982), Iceman (1984) and Plenty (1985). He developed a stunning use of widescreen and snappy editing -- evident in Roxanne -- that he later perfected in A Cry in the Dark (1988), The Russia House (1990), Six Degrees of Separation (1993) and Last Orders (2002). Because of Schepisi Roxanne is far more accomplished directorially than Martin's next outing as a screenwriter L.A. Story (1991, directed by Mick Jackson).

Roxanne also marked a kind of end to Martin's period of brilliance. His superb comic performances in All of Me (1984) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986) garnered him some serious critical acclaim. But when the Oscar nominations did not come, he began to move into the realm of Serious Actor -- the kind of heavy, sentimental work that wins Oscars -- and neglect his true comic skills. (Sadly, Jim Carrey and Robin Williams have also taken this path.) Roxanne remains his pinnacle and his turning point.