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‘Roxanne’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 19, 1987

Steve Martin is one funny white gentile. And there is more than enough cut-up stuff in "Roxanne" to fill a one-hour TV special. But "Roxanne," as a modern reprise of Edmond Rostand's play "Cyrano de Bergerac," is a frustrating update. Take away the comedy and you're left with a pallid version -- a sort of Reader's Digest condensation -- of the original.

Briefly: In "Roxanne," a small-town fire chief called C.D. Bales (Martin) falls in love with intelligent, beautiful astronomer Roxanne (Daryl Hannah). But she has eyes for new fireman Chris (Rick Rossovich), a handsome but vacuous moron. C.D., as a favor to the dummy, ghostwrites love letters for him to Roxanne; she falls in love with Chris's body and C.D.'s soul.

Martin claims to have written 25 script drafts for this film, which indicates the uphill trudge he faced. He set out to recast a grand tale of Old World chivalry, gentilesse and aesthetics within the modern, humdrum American environment of Alligator Shirt Suburbia. What he has produced is Steve Martin playing a nice 'n' wacky guy in a sappy story. He even requites the unrequited so we shouldn't leave the theater unhappy.

There are, to be sure, amusing scenes. But most of these work because director Fred Schepisi ("Plenty," "Iceman") lets Martin be Martin. And that he be -- contorting, beaming, one-linering and even giving a gratuitous Marty Short impression. When a bar redneck teases C.D. unimaginatively about his nose, C.D. tells him 20 better nose-jabs he could have made (as in "I'd hate to see the grindstone

. . ."), and there is one slapsticky takeoff of martial-arts movies in which C.D. fends off two thugs with flourishes of his tennis racket, saying things like "15 love!"

In Rostand's oft-imitated play, Cyrano is an elegant renaissance man, skilled in swordplay and poetry. His nobility (and ability to attract women) is hampered only by an enormous nose. In "Roxanne," Martin gives C.D. similar (by American standards) nobility, but also makes him a Regular Guy. Thus C.D. is an unusual -- if not incredible -- hybrid of Old World knowledge and aw-shucks American down-home-ness. He's a fire chief who dabbles in metaphor, simile, gymnastics and kung fu. His house is stuffed with literature. He makes très, très gourmet dishes in a kitchen that's a showroom of knives, mincers and garlic cloves. Yet this esoteric dresses distinctly Sears Roebuck -- cotton shirts, baseball cap, etc. And, as for Cyrano's wordmeistership, C.D.'s letters to Roxanne would make the Hallmark creative department cringe.

Last, and least, there's Daryl Hannah. She's lovely to behold. Unfortunately, as post-feminist Roxanne -- an attractive, brilliant astronomer who's looking for a man "with half a brain" -- she's in over her (how does one put this?) not-quite-ready-for-Fulbright head. Ms. Hannah has been a fish out of water since "Splash."

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