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'Roxanne' (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 19, 1987

Nothing that Steve Martin does in his new film "Roxanne" is run-of-the-mill. Every gesture is blessed, inspired. As C.D., the fire chief of the tiny, hillside town of Nelson, his smallest movement is a flourish, an opportunity for gallant display. Just walking down the street, he moves as if he were riding the crest of a wave, deftly shifting his weight as he skims across the ground. A simple set of stairs presents an invitation to the dance. And he marks his arrival at the top, knock-kneed, with a modest celebration, his arms upraised to the skies. It's just a nod, really, but the move seems to unveil a gallery of cherubic angels who, floating invisibly around him, attend his every feat, cheering him on to greater glory.

"Roxanne" is the most unabashed, and most satisfying, romantic movie to come along in years. It's a swooning, delicate, heart-on-its-sleeve work. And so fulsome is its tenderness and naivete' that it requires a leap of imagination from the viewer to get on its wavelength.

Few recent movies, though, reward the stretch as this one does. The picture is Martin's adaptation of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac," and C.D. his variation on the playwright's nostrilly cavalier. C.D. carries on a constant dialogue with the heavens, for, clearly, he has been singled out, touched by the gods. The mark of distinction is, of course, his nose, that wondrous, fleshy, awe-inspiring beak. C.D.'s nose is the tapering symbol of his uniqueness, his special, charmed status. But, though this aspect of Rostand's material has been downplayed, it's his burden as well.

Martin's C.D. is a natural romantic; poetry flows out of him. And yet, his, alas, is not a lover's visage. C.D. yearns for fulfilment in love; for a night of hand-holding and walking in the moonlight. "But then," he says, "I see the shadow of my profile on the wall."

What Martin and the film's director Fred Schepisi have created out of Rostand's work is an exhilarating comic love story about the glories of eccentricity, the triumph of peculiarity, of one-of-a-kindness. The mixture of romance and physical comedy they created is nearly perfect. And in a hundred details that's precisely what it is.

The film's plot is set in motion when two newcomers, Chris (Rick Rossovich), a new man at the fire station, and Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), a visiting astronomer, arrive in town. When C.D. first meets Roxanne she is rather at a disadvantage -- naked and her door locked behind her -- but C.D. comes to her rescue, and clambering up the outside of her house, executing a few perfect-10 moves as he goes, he's like Buster Keaton working his way up the bridge of his boat in "Steamboat Bill, Jr." And, like Keaton, in an instant, he's hopelessly smitten. (I think it was her knowledge of quarks that got him.) Yet, though C.D.'s moves impress her -- she thinks he's funny -- it's the hunky Chris she falls for.

But Chris, though he looks like a lady-killer, gets all tongue-tied and nauseous when a classy lady shows interest. (Chris, a good-time guy, actually likes more easygoing, less ethereal women.) Roxanne doesn't quite know how to approach Chris either, and the scene in which she asks C.D. to break the ice for her is heartbreakingly painful. It's a slap in C.D.'s face, and we feel it as much as he does.

The scene is a tricky one, because, with it, the filmmakers run the risk of losing our affection for Roxanne. Momentarily her preference for Chris causes us to become disenchanted with her. We think she's too conventional, to unimaginative for C.D. We understand his agreeing to help her, though, and later, too, when he agrees to assist Chris by writing a love letter to her signing Chris' name. Love has released something in him, something he can no longer hold in, and he'll do anything to find a means of expressing it.

Martin has built glorious layers into his script, and Schepisi's direction brings them out beautifully. Watching the picture, you revel in its poetic detail, its grace notes. The movie is filled with marvelous, subtle touches, like the pink ribbon Daryl Hannah strings through her hair, or the way Schepisi's camera pans from the ground up to discover C.D. perched on a rooftop.

Schepisi's handling of the film's setting is important, too, because it creates an enchanted world for a highly conceptualized, passionate character like C.D. to exist in. Nearly everybody in Nelson accepts C.D.'s miraculous schnoz, and they accept him as the town's natural leader too -- its dashing, eccentric hero. Nelson itself is a sylvan fairy-tale enclave for drowsy oddballs. The way Schepisi has shot in it, Nelson is all steep inclines and pitched rooftops; there's not a level piece of ground in the entire city. Everything's slightly askew, at an angle. And that's perfect for its inhabitants.

The local luncheonette, Dixie's, is run by Shelley Duvall, who also gives advice to the lovelorn on the side. And the firehouse gang is staffed by a cartoon cavalcade of bumblers -- they're Mack Sennett firefighters, stumbling over their hoses and squirting each other with water -- led by Michael J. Pollard. The town's mayor (Fred Willard) wants to transform their little village into a bustling ski resort, like Aspen, and, to attract attention, chooses a sweet-faced cow as its mascot and stages the city's first Oktoberfest -- in July.

The movie has lilting, rhapsodic comic rhythms. Its one extended set piece, in which Chris tries to woo Roxanne, with C.D. prompting him from the sidelines, is a remarkably adroit piece of romantic slapstick. And the sequence has a lovely payoff. Building on Rostand's original, it plays like a slapstick variation on the balcony scene in "Romeo and Juliet." In it, C.D., posing as Chris, speaks his love for Roxanne, who, swept away with emotion, nearly tumbles over the railing. It's an entrancingly sweet, intoxicating sequence.

Though the movie is far too fully realized to be merely a star turn, the tone is set by Martin's performance. In his script, Martin marries the romanticism in Rostand's material to the tradition of unrequited yearning in the silent comedies. And when he appears onscreen, Martin carries that whole world of Chaplin and Keaton on with him. He embodies it. As Roxanne, Daryl Hannah is the perfect object of his affections, the silent-comedy dream girl. Hannah's sheer size, and the long, exaggerated angularity of her features, is what sets her apart, and makes her a worthy object of C.D.'s effusive heart.

Anyone who has watched Martin in the past, in "All of Me" or "Pennies From Heaven," knows what an astonishingly expressive physical performer he is. (Has there been a more accomplished physical comedian in the sound era?) But the surprise here is his soulfulness and generosity of spirit. Performers switch media for a great number of reasons, and this picture demonstrates why Martin has given up performing on stage. The part Martin has written for himself here is the best role he's had so far to showcase that particular mix of the cornball and the surreal in his personality. For once, you feel, he's gotten it all. It's the apotheosis of Steve.

In their films, Keaton and Chaplin played characters who were outsiders, too, and the possibility of their winning the hearts of heroines through conventional means was slim. (We wouldn't have identified with them as much if they weren't.) In C.D., Martin has created a modern equivalent to those extraordinary outcasts. And in doing so, he's created the perfect vehicle for his own essential oddness and eccentricity. So, when he visits the plastic surgeon's office and slides picture-cards of potential noses against his own face, fantasizing himself with a "normal" profile, we have mixed emotions. The scene is terrifically funny, but without his nose, he seems diminished, less interesting. He becomes the one thing in the world we never wanted him to be -- ordinary.

"Roxanne" contains no offensive material.

Copyright The Washington Post

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