Critic's Notebook: 30 Years Later, Steve Martin's Witty 'Roxanne' Endures

Roxanne (1987) - Still -Photofest-H 2017
Columbia Pictures/Photofest

'Roxanne' — released today in 1987 — was one of the last moments at which fans could view the comedian purely as the champion of intelligence and intelligent stupidity.

In 1987, back when Hollywood was just flirting with its current dependence on old intellectual property, releasing two films based on old TV shows — Dragnet, a goofball dud, and The Untouchables, a serious reimagining — in hopes of a summer hit, Steve Martin was engaging in an older, more creatively fulfilling sort of remake. He had penned a present-day romantic comedy inspired by Edmond Rostand's 19th century French play Cyrano de Bergerac. He would play the Cyrano character — the big-nosed romantic once played by Jose Ferrer — while a peak-of-her-fame Daryl Hannah would be the object of his love.

1987 was not a boom year for pure love stories about grown-ups. If you don't count the teen-geared hit Dirty Dancing or the sui generis Princess Bride, the only other wide release to compare Roxanne to is Moonstruck, which would hit theaters that December.

Comparing the two does Roxanne no favors these days. Where the Cher vehicle was operatically romantic, chock-full of memorable performances and more local color than you could swing a baker's paddle at, Fred Schepisi's film of Martin's script is effervescent, more charming than convincing. A very of-its-time soundtrack by frequent Schepisi collaborator Bruce Smeaton, heavy on the cheez-sax and tinkling keys, will be the biggest obstacle for a young viewer coming fresh to the film in 2017.

But much of its wit endures. Smartly integrating the nutty physicality of his stand-up act into a fleshed-out character, Martin begins the picture on a stroll from home to the downtown of his tiny mountainside ski town. He improvises a song as he walks, narrating his near-falls and predicting the trouble ahead: A confrontation with two drunken yuppies that will turn into a comic riff on one of Cyrano's sword fights. To the accompaniment of nearly Three Stooges-grade sound effects, Martin's C.D. Bales fends off their ski poles with a tennis racket, besting the boors with his chipper mood undisturbed.

Bales will demonstrate the same sort of unflappability elsewhere, turning bullies' dumbness against them whenever they have the gall to mock his Pinocchio-like proboscis. Bullies aside, the whole town loves him; Martin the screenwriter is generous to Martin the actor, giving himself all the good lines and making sure others appreciate them.

Cyrano's main plot has its hero smitten with a woman he knows could never love him because of his nose. When a handsome but dumb underling falls for the woman, Cyrano writes love letters for him and feeds him the lines that will win her over. Here, it's hunky Chris (Rick Rossovich, just off Top Gun) who is too shy to talk to Hannah's title character; Bales woos her for him, and in one lovely scene, he almost allows the facade to fall — drunk on knowing that she's in falling love with his mind, he nearly reveals himself as the man putting words in Chris' mouth.

A real man in this situation would be a self-pitying wreck, but Roxanne saddles Bales with just enough wistful regret to keep us involved in his plight. Needless to say, things eventually go better for him than they did for old Cyrano, and the film ends as sweetly as any rom-com of the era.

1987 saw Martin appearing in not just Roxanne but the John Hughes holiday comedy Planes, Trains & Automobiles, which pointed toward the blander family films that would occupy him for most of the '90s and aughts. His 1991 L.A. Story would again pair a pure-of-heart love story with Martin's eye for the strange and wondrous, but by and large the actor was moving toward broader comedies and simpler emotional payoffs. (1999's Bowfinger being a glorious, career-best exception.) Roxanne was one of the last moments at which fans could view the comedian purely as the champion of intelligence and intelligent stupidity, the Dadaist who somehow infiltrated the box office. It was a high point of 1987 for viewers with their own romantic troubles, who badly needed to hear that you didn't have to be a Top Gun stud to get the girl, so long as you had something going on upstairs.