Ah, the 1980s. I’m not going to pretend it was the golden age of Hollywood, but it was a time when whole years might go by without a superhero movie. And when a studio might give a white-haired comedian the green light for his screenplay based on Cyrano de Bergerac… Roxanne.
In this movie, we have Steve Martin in the second phase of his career – after the inspired lunacy of The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains but before the family man movies (Parenthood, Father of the Bride). With this one, and L.A. Story (1991), you get romcoms with absurd touches.
Martin plays small town fire chief CD Bates, who meets astronomer Roxanne Kowalski (Daryl Hannah) when she’s locked out of her home naked and needs someone to break in.
There’s only one thing standing in the way of romance: CD’s enormous nose. She apparently can’t see past it, because she ignores their obvious compatibility and pursues the dim-witted Chris (Rick Rossovich) instead. Chris gets nauseous when he tries to speak to Roxanne and has nothing to say anyway, so CD starts feeding him the sensitive words that make Roxanne fall in love.
Let’s discuss that nose for a minute. You know that Martin and director Fred Schepisi must have considered a lot of noses for the role, trying to find the balance between comedy and plausibility. In the end, they went for a proboscis bigger than any you’ll have seen in your travels in the real world. And that sort of sets the tone for the film: This isn’t reality as we know it, even through movies; it’s an off-kilter world of its own, with a lot of absurd touches to adorn the action. While the love story is going on, CD’s fire department goes around like the Keystone Cops, starting more blazes than it puts out.
What does Martin’s script take from Cyrano? There’s the nose, and the barrage of jokes that CD himself gets from it because the locals are too slow to come up with a better insult than “big nose”. There’s the conceit of CD providing the words for someone else to court the woman he loves. And there’s the action: the movie cleverly replaces the play’s swashbuckling with some inventive fighting and acrobatics. But don’t go expecting it to follow the play’s story all the way through. There’s no element of tragedy here.
In some ways it’s terribly 1980s – the chintzy décor of the absurdly large homes in which these single people live, the saxophone-and-synthesiser music score. And by abandoning Edmond Rostand’s plot for something sweeter, it’s hardly challenging, but it is engaging and often funny.
Just don’t count on it as a way to get through a test on Cyrano without reading the book. You’ll want to watch the new film with the guy from Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame for that.