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Steve Martin plays lovable fire chief C. D. Bales, a kind, big-hearted man who the entire town admires. He just happens to have an absurdly large nose. It sticks straight out so far he can’t drink from a glass. It’s so big, you can’t NOT see it, causing those who first meet him to either turn away, stare at it in a wide-eyed trance, or worse, make jokes. If you fall into the latter category, you most definitely will regret it. But C. D. has a bigger problems than his sniffer. A fetching new girl in town, Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), has got him bewilderingly intoxicated, but she’s more interested in his big . . . intellect. Romantically, she got the hots for dimwit, but good-looking fireman Chris (Rick Rossovich), who can barely string three words together. C. D., convinced a girl like her would never be interested in him, actually helps the naive and higher-thinking lover boy to win over Roxanne, using words he himself writes. A comedy of errors follows and in the end, well, you can guess what happens. It’s an age-old tale.
Directed by Fred Schepisi and based on the classic Edmond Rostand rhyming play, Cyrano de Bergerac, Roxanne is a modern telling that keeps mostly faithful to the core plot. Light and breezy, it is nonetheless, effective and charming, with a sharp script (by Martin) and excellent performances. While it doesn’t try to be anything more than it is, it succeeds because of its surprising authenticity and devotion to the characters. Bales is never the joke of the movie, even if he is made to be by several in the story. It makes all the difference. Of the many great moments in the film, and there are plenty, there is one sequence that has particular resonance. And it means more than it suggests.
With a nose as large as C. D.’s, a few casual shots at his appearance from strangers is practically a way of life, and for Bales, he’s heard them all. Yes, he wishes he had a better beak, but surgery isn’t possible, so he lives with it and because he has made himself to be more than just a nose, he is beloved by the community he serves.
One evening, in a crowded bar, a big thug named Jim (Thom Curley) decides to take a pot shot at Bales’ nose, calling him “Big nose.” It’s a pretty pathetic one-liner and while the thug thinks himself clever, Bales is quick to condemn the bigger man for his lack of imagination. This prompts a challenge by the boozer for C. D. to do something better. Bales laughably accepts and the number of insults is decided on a dart toss, which, as the man was a local champion, is 20. What follows is a comedic tour-de-force as Bales steadily, methodically, and hilariously stages a wholesale evisceration of his own face, and by default, Jim.
What makes this so clever is that it, like nearly every aspect of the story, it has weight and is sublimely relevant. It is not filler nor meant to be a throw-away gag. While the set-up and the delivery are finely tuned to be funny, the take-away is much heavier. Here is a man burdened by a one in a billion stroke of genetic bad luck who, in almost any crowd, is categorically different, spending his life in defense of the most noticeable thing about him. Martin deftly handles this throughout the film, never once begging the audience for sympathy. That’s already inherent. What he does is teach us to respect, and in some ways, admire the things that set us apart, even if that thing isn’t so pronounced as his nose. But this scene isn’t about the insults. It’s about the seduction.
What we notice here, and what happens subtly, is how Bales uses the moment to woo Roxanne, the girl the whole town is talking about and who has become his friend (only). She is sitting at one of the tables with him and a fellow friend Dixie (Shelley Duvall). Dixie already suspects the C. D. has a thing for Roxanne and she will play a crucial part in that later, but here, in the bar, Bales uses this moment to show off a bit and demonstrate some of the ‘panache’ the de Bergerac character famously invented. He prances about the room, holding attention over the entire packed bar, with many in the audiences seemingly having gone through this before, enjoying the show. One patron, a man who earlier had a verbal joust with Bales and paid the price, even tries to stop Jim from playing. He knows better. But nonetheless, it is Roxanne, seated in the center of it all, who this show is for. C. D. doesn’t have the brawn or magazine-style good-looks that he thinks will win the girl, but what he does have is smarts and a fearlessness that makes him exceedingly attractive. Roxanne notices.
Let’s talk insults. Bales takes an interesting approach to the bet, deciding to preface each of the Something Betters with a single word theme, giving every joke added punch. That has a lot of significance as it further illustrates the way C. D.’s mind works. Not content to let rip a series of obvious one-liners, he layers his insults, structures them, and assembles them into a performance that begins with a barb that accentuates the lack of creativity on the thug’s part, escalates to a bevy of more nuanced attacks and by the end, is spun around so the words are actually an insult on Jim. It’s a masterful strike that ends with an angry physical swing by Jim that is countered by Bales with the same ease and deftness as his words, dropping the thug to his knees. But it’s that string of Something Betters that leaves the larger impression. Here’s the complete list:
1. Obvious: Excuse me. Is that your nose or did a bus park on your face.
2. Meteorological: Everybody take cover. She’s going to blow.
3. Fashionable: You know, you could de-emphasize your nose if you wore something larger. Like … Wyoming.
4. Personal: Well, here we are. Just the three of us.
5. Punctual: Alright gentlemen. Your nose was on time but you were fifteen minutes late.
6. Envious: Oooo, I wish I were you. Gosh. To be able to smell your own ear.
7. Naughty: Pardon me, Sir. Some of the ladies have asked if you wouldn’t mind putting that thing away.
8. Philosophical: You know. It’s not the size of a nose thats important. It’s what’s in it that matters.
9. Humorous: Laugh and the world laughs with you. Sneeze and its goodbye Seattle.
10. Commercial: Hi, I’m Earl Schibe and I can paint that nose for $39.95.
11. Polite: Ah. Would you mind not bobbing your head. The orchestra keeps changing tempo.
12. Melodic: Everybody! “He’s got the whole world in his nose.”
13. Sympathetic: Oh, What happened? Did your parents lose a bet with God?
14. Complimentary: You must love the little birdies to give them this to perch on.
15. Scientific: Say, does that thing there influence the tides.
16. Obscure: Oh, I’d hate to see the grindstone . . . Think about it.
17. Inquiry: When you stop to smell the flowers, are they afraid?
18. French: Say, the pigs have refused to find any more truffles until you leave.
19. Pornographic: Finally, a man who can satisfy two women at once.
20. Religious: The Lord giveth and He just kept on giving, didn’t He.
21. Disgusting: Say, who mows your nose hair.
22. Paranoid: Keep that guy away from my cocaine.
23. Aromatic: It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and smell the coffee . . . in Brazil
24. Appreciative: Oooh, how original. Most people just have their teeth capped.
25. Dirty: Your name wouldn’t be Dick, would it?
You’ll notice of course, he goes over twenty. That’s the fault of a patron who, after Bales asks how many has he done, shouts out “fourteen” when he’d already hit the required number. Once again, while it’s not actually noted in the story, this overage is important. Bales’ greatest talent is his love of words, the poetry of language and its power to sway. He uses them to help Chris get Roxanne into bed (something he naturally regrets) and then uses them to win her in the end. Nothing is small in C. D.’s world. To compensate for his facial appendage, he over-does it with everything else, especially his mouth. This ability to wordsmith his way through life is his natural defense, and has helped create the flamboyantly jovial and high-energy man he has become. He stopped at twenty-five, but there is a sense he could have spun another twenty more.
He walks away from this encounter with renewed confidence and a sense that he’s made the right impression. Sure, he’s got a lot of work ahead of him, but the thing about Roxanne, and something he suspects from the moment he meets her, is that she sees past the nose on one’s face, which obviously causes distress when she seems attracted to the muscular Chris. The 20 Something Betters have great sway over what comes next, and while it holds only part of the reason for why things end up as they do, it is one of the better ones.
Roxanne is a perfect little slice of cinema charm, a superbly-crafted adaptation that might be a little predictable, but embraces that element and uses its time to build likable and properly-motivated characters rather than trying to reinvent the story.
Edmond Rostand (play), Steve Martin (screenplay)
Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, Rick Rossovich