Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Forty-Eight

#48 — Roxanne (Fred Schepisi, 1987)
No matter what snap judgments observers may have made about him when he rose to fame in the nineteen-seventies by making balloon animals and wearing arrow-through-the-head apparatuses, Steve Martin has classic, refined tastes. It’s not just in the acquisition of art–a topic in which Martin is extremely well-versed, although New York City audiences apparently have no interest in his insights. For example, when penning his first solo screenplay after serving as one of the contributing writers on most of his prior comedies, Martin looked to a work no less venerable than the 1897 Edmond Rostand drama Cyrano de Bergerac for inspiration. Martin’s update reimagines Cyrano as C.D. Bales, the fire chief in a quaint town in the Pacific Northwest. The uncommonly lengthy protuberance in the middle of his face, perfectly suited, as he puts it, for the little birdies to perch on, has contributed to a resigned, wistful loneliness that is an especially cruel outcome given his clear romantic nature. He sees a potential spur off of his forlorn path with the arrival of the beautiful astronomer Roxanne Kowalski, played by Daryl Hannah. Unfortunately, her libido is stirred by another newcomer to town, a lunkish recruit to the fire department, played by Rick Rossovich. Soon, C.D. is standing unseen in the bushes, prompting his rival with the perfect poetry to win Roxanne’s heart.

The resiliency of the story may have been proven countless times over in the ninety years before Martin took his turn with it, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of the wit and grace he brings to his adaptation. Though I have ample nostalgia-boosted love of the comedic efforts that preceded this film, there was an unmistakable frantic anxiousness to them, a unkempt urgency to wring laughs out of every absurdist notion that crossed into their creators’ collective brainpan. Roxanne trades that in for a lovely deftness. Martin infuses his character with a verbal and physical dexterity that defines the film. It is relentlessly funny, but never at the expense of its intelligence. It’s not just that Martin writes C.D. Bales as the sharpest person in town; every line is beautifully constructed, including those doled out to characters with lower IQs. For example, when Fred Willard’s genially addled mayor declares “I would rather be with the people of this town than with the finest people in the world,” it’s a handsome feat of authorship.

Martin is equally lithe in his performance, allowing his character’s humor be an eloquently natural mask for his sadness in a way that doesn’t rely on pathos. He is removed enough from any sort of confidence that his feelings will be valued by others that the mere act of expressing them, even fruitlessly, becomes a resounding rebirth. There is kindness and a pained honesty to these scenes that gives the film a rewarding depth. Fred Schepisi develops the tone of the film masterfully, strong with the same restraint that guides Martin. He also frames his shots marvelously. Widescreen film images are often considered best suited for stories of epic sweep and startling landscapes, but Schepisi demonstrates how it can enhance a smaller story as well, taking advantage of the extra room to build subtly inventive visuals. He doesn’t push because he doesn’t need to. The warm wonders of the film are right there, just waited to presented.