Friday, February 5, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Roxanne"

Because he got his start doing doofy stand-up and comedies like "The Jerk," most people don't have an appreciation for what a cerebral guy Steve Martin really is.

This is a fellow who wrote a novel about Picasso arguing with Einstein, and penned numerous screenplays, including clever little movies most people didn't see like "Shopgirl" (he also wrote the novella). He also came up with the story for "Traitor," a terrific 2008 Don Cheadle movie that's worth catching.

So in that light perhaps it's not surprising that "Roxanne," which wears the clothes of a quirky romantic comedy, is actually based on the play "Cyrano de Bergerac" by Edmond Rostand. The story of a poet/swordsman with a comically huge nose has been turned into numerous movies -- most notably the 1950 film version that won Jose Ferrer an Oscar. But Martin, who wrote the script and stars, took the tragedy and took a left turn with it, both modernizing the setting and emphasizing the romantic and comedic elements.

He plays Charlie "C.D." Banes, the fire chief of a small ski resort town, who falls for the title character, an astronomer who's rented out a house for the summer to study a new comet. Of course, since his schnoz has its own zip code, she kind of dismisses him as a romantic partner. Instead, she falls for Chris (Rick Rossovich), the handsome but dim new firefighter at C.D.'s station.

Directed by the Australian talent Fred Schepisi (who also helmed "Barbarosa," featured in this space not long ago), "Roxanne" is a light, funny movie with a lot of deep undercurrents. It's a challenging look at the nature of love and attraction, and how people often fall for the outside package, deluding themselves into thinking the object of their lust must also have wonderful inner qualities, too.

The fact that it's about male rather than female beauty makes it all the more interesting. The movie's depiction dovetails with my own observation that handsome men tend to be pricks, and that women are much more willing to ascribe positive personality traits to a man just because she thinks he's dreamy-looking. Men learn very early on that just because a woman is beautiful, it doesn't mean she's a wonderful person, too. I think it has to do with the whole "Prince Charming" myth, that a perfect guy will arrive to rescue them. As a result, good-looking guys have a lot of women throw themselves at them, which leads to swelled ego, and hence the aforementioned prickdom.

In the movie's case, Chris is actually not a jerk, and is in fact painfully shy around women. That's why he enlists C.D.'s aid in wooing her with romantic, poetic letters. Of course, eventually he and Roxanne have to have a real date, which the boys nearly destroy with a cockamamie scheme to rig a transmitter in Chris' hunting hat so C.D. can feed him lines. When the radio goes on the fritz, Chris reveals an unfortunate glimpse of his real self, praising Roxanne's "knockers."

Of course, it all builds to Roxanne discovering that it is C.D. who really loves her, and that he is the one she fell in love with through his words.

The film is a real charmer, from start to finish. There's a lot of lovely throwaway jokes -- I love the one where C.D. buys a newspaper from a machine, looks at the headline and screams, and fetches another coin from his pocket so he can throw the offending paper back into the box.

There's also a lot of actors in nice supporting performances, such as Fred Willard, Shelly Duvall, Damon Wayans, John Kapelos and Michael J. Pollard.

This gem from Steve Martin, Fred Schepisi and company has both beauty, and brains.

4 stars

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