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MOVIE REVIEW : Romance of 'Roxanne'

June 19, 1987|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Before "Roxanne" (selected theaters) is 10 minutes old, we've seen for ourselves that Steve Martin's C.D. Bales is a prince among men: he's dryly understated, comfortably well-read, great at his job, athletic, resourceful and funny. No, better than funny, ironic.

As a man who adores women, who savors each and every lineament of desire, C.D. has had a lifetime to practice irony--and self-deprecation. For C.D. Bales is Cyrano de Bergerac, in modern clothes. Under C.D's fire chief's hat is Cyrano's great, ongoing nose, one that little birds could perch on--and do. Under that fire chief's badge is Cyrano's poet's heart.

And under Rostand's five acts of rhetoric, nobility, warfare and poignant sacrifice--as unearthed by Martin, who adapted the script, and honed by director Fred Schepisi--is a warm, nimble, utterly contemporary modern romance. What's interesting is to discover that the love triangle of "Cyrano" can work without death as its conclusion: that its essence, a beautiful woman finding out just who she loves--and why--is as strong in sunshine as in shadow.

I can't think of a current movie in which every element is in such balance: Martin seems unfettered, expansive, utterly at ease, capable of any physical feat (except possibly drinking from a wine glass without a straw). There's a tenderness to him that's magnetic. Daryl Hannah's Roxanne, an astronomer, is smart and sublimely beautiful all at once, her skin apricot-colored in this mountain sun, her face rhapsodic as she talks about muons, gluons and quarks.

They have been put into a dream of a setting: a hilly, old-fashioned American ski town (actually Nelson, British Columbia) whose wooden houses and broad porches speak of another time; of neighborliness and small-town values that may actually be as dead as Edmond Rostand but make a deeply comforting ambiance.

Interesting, how little the structure of the story had to be changed: It's still the story of a man (C.D.) who loves in silence, since he's sure the woman of his heart could never love him, and of his bittersweet success in helping Christian, the man she \o7 is\f7 attracted to, handsome but tongue-tied in her presence. He writes Christian's letters, even becomes his voice one night in theater's second most-famous balcony scene.

In place of a regiment, C.D. now commands a volunteer fire brigade, more out of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati than the 17th Century. The officer Christian is now Chris (Rick Rossovich), the professional firefighter C.D. has imported to beef up his clownish squad. Chris' notion of chatting up a girl is to tell her how great her knockers are. There are still duels, when C.D. can bear the cracks about his, um, feature no longer--although they're fought with tennis rackets against ski poles. And C.D. still has a masterly aria, mocking an opponent's feeble attempts to describe the infamous nose.

For "Roxanne" to work, we have to see Chris for what he is, a great-looking jock whose IQ probably matched his jersey number, but we also have to see him through Roxanne's eyes, as purposefully silent, instead of stricken numb and mute. Since C.D. so clearly outclasses him, it's hard, but still within the realm of possibility. Where Martin's adaptation becomes cannily inventive is in getting Chris off the scene again. Rostand used a war; Martin created the diversionary Sandy (Shandra Beri), a cheerful bartender, in an inspired bit of plotting.

Less inspired is the waste of the shiny-haired, enormous-eyed Shelley Duvall as Dixie, owner of the town cafe who must pine for C.D. in vain. (Because she isn't conventionally beautiful? Pshaw! And what an odd comment, in this context.)

One question isn't quite perfectly handled: the matter of plastic surgery. C.D. yearns for it--looking like Diana Ross seems just about right to him. Writer Martin offers a fast line from the doctor that C.D. is allergic to anesthetics, but it's a bit of sleight of hand that doesn't quite hold up. We believe it only because we are willingly under the movie's spell, nothing more.

Schepisi ("The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith," "Iceman") has always had a humanist's eye and a great sense for physical movement, but this is his first comedy. He keeps it fluid, light, always in motion--and graceful as those lumpen firemen, moving at last in concert with their hose, to a Strauss waltz. And at its center is Martin's generous, dazzling performance, in which yearning, irony, wit and physicality blend perfectly.

The movie's special gift is its respect for intelligence. Without belaboring the point, Schepisi and Martin make knowledge the equivalent of Rostand's aristocracy and the underlying bond between C.D. and Roxanne. And in a time when anything can be said, and usually is, they understand the power of subtlety. What chance does "Weren't you Playmate of the Month?" have against a man who tells a woman her presence has him in orbit, "like the man in the Chagall, hovering, hanging in a delirious kiss." Now \o7 that\f7 is romance.

It's giddily intoxicating movie making too--in which every element conspires to make a warm, elegant whole. Schepisi again worked with Ian Baker, his longtime and superb cinematographer;Jack DeGovia's production designs gave the film its enveloping warmth; John Scott was the editor; Michael Westmore designed the legendary nose and Frank Griffin was the makeup artist, and Richard Bruno and Tish Monaghan were the costume designers, in the United States and Canada, respectively. Steve Martin was also the film's executive producer (crediting "special thanks" to Don Zimmerman); Michael Rachmil and Daniel Melnick its producers.

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