July 06, 1987 12:00 PM

They say most comics long to play Hamlet. Perhaps as a warmup, Steve Martin has taken on Cyrano de Bergerac, the swashbuckling soldier hero of Edmond Rostand’s poetic tragedy set in 17th-century France. In updating the piece for the 1980s, Martin—doubling as star and screenwriter—has dumped most of the sob stuff and added his own brand of inspired silliness. The result, purists be damned, is a romantic lark that soars with Steve Martin’s wittiest and warmest screen perfomance. Martin’s C.D. Bales is a Washington State fire chief leading a troop of misfit volunteers. Like Cyrano, C.D. is a man with a heart the size of his schnoz—that is to say, prodigious. (Michael Westmore designed the nose which is, well, hugely funny.) In the film’s comic high point, Martin takes on a barroom heckler with a barrage of his own nose insults. But his humor barely masks the inadequacy he feels around women, who revel in his wit yet are repelled by his nose. C.D. loves a beautiful astronomer named Roxanne, played with surprising exuberance by the usually bland Daryl Hannah. She lusts after firefighter Rick Rossovich, a tongue-tied hunk who can’t find the vocabulary to ask for a date. Martin helps Rossovich by writing for him rapturous love letters that deliver Roxanne to the wrong man’s bed. Not for long, though. This new Cyrano has a happy ending. Director Fred (Plenty) Schepisi gives the movie a lush romantic atmosphere that allows Martin to build character as well as jests. Martin is trying something ambitious here: to make a romantic farce in which laughs don’t undercut the love story. His footing isn’t always sure. He lets syrupy music and sight gags pollute the poignancy of the famous balcony scene, in which, hidden in the dark, he can finally speak to Roxanne of his love. And Martin never develops the rapport he starts to establish with his bumbling firemen or with matchmaker Shelley Duvall, who is a welcome sight back on screen after five years of producing TV fairy tales. But if Martin sometimes trips up, he deserves a salute for trying something different instead of taking the easy path to box-office booty (read: Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop II) by trotting out a sequel to one of his hits. Roxanne has the exuberance of fresh comic thinking. (PG)

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