Roxanne, Pratfall-A-Rama and What Might Have Been

Steve Martin's Roxanne turns 30

Why don’t I love “Roxanne” anymore? The Steve Martin-Darryl Hannah comedy is turning 30 years old this week and will be featured on this week’s I Hate Critics movie review podcast which is being dedicated to the work of Steve Martin, featuring a Steve Martin Top 5 and “The Jerk” as this week’s I Hate Critics Undisputed Classic. So, of course, I watched “Roxanne” and the film left me only mildly amused at best, deeply disappointed at worst.

This confused me because my memory of the film, from being a 10 year old Steve Martin fan, was a non-stop laugh riot. I had a very similar experience when this week I also revisited Martin’s 1980 standup comedy special “In Honor of Steve.” Though my inner 10 year old found delight in Martin’s arrow through the head wackiness and the adult in me could recognize what might be a transgressive sort of anti-comedy peaking around the edges of otherwise earnest prat-falling, I could not find a place between the child and the adult that genuinely enjoyed Martin’s work.

Don’t misunderstand; it’s not that I am arguing Steve Martin isn’t funny, or not in many ways a comic genius, it’s an issue of taste. The adult in me doesn’t find Martin’s antics funny anymore and far too many moments of Roxanne, the extraneous scenes of Martin pulling a random physical gag, the plot friendly but awfully staged gymnastics that his C.B Bales is capable of for the purpose of god knows what, they’re unnecessary and distracting and rarely very funny.

There are multiple examples of these extraneous scenes with only a tenuous connection to the plot of “Roxanne” but let’s look at the very first scene of the film. Let me preface this by saying that I understand the fight scene that begins “Roxanne” is intended to demonstrate that C.D Bales is sensitive about the size of his exceptionally lengthy nose. I also am aware that the film is very loosely based on the play “Cyrano De Bergerac” which also begins with a sword fight. That said, the scene plays awkwardly and doesn’t really shine a positive light on the character of C.D Bales, especially as our introduction to the character.

“Roxanne” begins with a spry and upbeat C.D walking down the street improvising in order, I guess, to demonstrate he’s charming even when alone. On his walk to the fire station where he is the Chief of a small town California volunteer department, filled with the clichéd group of random goofs, C.D encounters a pair of drunks, one of whom is played by Kevin Nealon, who begin to antagonize C.D. When they finally get a good look at C.D’s prominent proboscis, they begin to poke fun and provoke C.D into a physical confrontation.

For reasons that the movie never explains, the two drunks, dressed in shorts and polo shirts are carrying around skiing poles. The ski poles exist only so that they can be wielded as swords against C.D who is carrying a tennis racket that the film at least explains that he’s returning to a friend. The fight begins and C.D parries and dodges and makes the drunks look silly before dispatching them on the ground with Bugs Bunny cartoon style blows from his tennis racket. Is the scene mildly entertaining? Kind of, but it’s also a tad awkward and ultimately unnecessary to the overall plot of “Roxanne.”

A pair of critics I admire on YouTube, Allison Pregler and Brad Jones, on the YouTube series “Midnight Screenings” have a phrase they use to describe humor in many comedies that is simply there because the people making the movie thought it would be funny, even as it doesn’t move the plot or improve the story. They call it ‘Line-o-Rama’ and I thought of that throughout “Roxanne” which seems to have a slight variation on that idea that I will call “Pratfall-A-Rama,” physical comedy for the sake of physical comedy, i.e. someone in the production, whether it was Martin or director Fred Schepisi, thought something would be funny and filmed it even though it added little to nothing to the movie.

An equally good example of this “Pratfall-A-Rama” phenomenon in “Roxanne” comes after the pivotal scene in which C.D, in the guise of his romantic rival Chris, played by Rick Rossovich, confesses his love to Roxanne, played by Darryl Hannah. The plot, for those who are unaware of the film or the 18th century play on which it is based, finds our hero in love with a woman who falls for another man at first because the man is so handsome but then because C.D, as the man’s friend and desperate to see Roxanne happy, while also feeling that she couldn’t love him because of his appearance, begins writing letters to Roxanne on Chris’s behalf. The letters are so poetic and heartfelt that she begins to fall in love with the words she believes are coming from the handsome doofus.

The central scene of the film finds C.D hiding in the bushes pretending to be Chris and delivering a heartfelt loving soliloquy that is so moving that she invites Chris to come to her bed. Putting aside for a moment how truly, skin-crawlingly creepy this scenario is in our modern context, it’s essentially emotional sexual abuse, tricking someone into sleeping with someone under false pretense, this pivotal scene leads to the scene that best makes my previous point.

Though C.D is racked with sadness over helping his romantic rival get into bed with the woman he loves, the film pauses for a bizarre bit of physical comedy so awkward and unfunny, I turned away. The scene begins with Martin falling from a tree, in front of a gaggle of old ladies who’ve been a sort of running gag throughout the film. Martin then launches into a bizarre scenario about how aliens have just dropped him back to earth and he warns the old ladies to get off the streets immediately because the aliens are searching for old women to have sex with. Again, we have to try and see around the creepiness again, but the scene ends with Martin telling the old ladies that the aliens landed at Roxanne’s house and the horny old women are seen to seem to be rushing off in that direction in order to have sex with aliens.

The scene has Martin throwing himself all over the place, mimicking his made up aliens and weaving his bizarre tale of the alien-old lady sex ring. The scene is painfully awkward and embarrassing for all involved. As a kid, when I didn’t recognize the subtext or get the meaning, I only saw lovable Steve Martin acting wacky and the scene probably made me giggle. As an adult, I find it cringe inducing. But more to my point about the film’s use of “Pratfall-A-Rama” the scene is extraneous. Martin’s physical antics aren’t funny and more to the point, they add nothing to the film other than an excuse for wacky improv antics.

What’s more is the scene could be so much funnier. What if, and this is just me making an exercise of coming up with something I think would have been funnier, what if C.D ran from Roxanne’s house to the fire station and pulled the fire alarm. Cut back to Chris hearing the siren like a dog hearing a dog whistle, and having to leave Roxanne as she tries to keep him from leaving and winds up frustrated and turned on but alone.

Cut back to the fire station, all the firefighters are gathered trying to figure out where the fire is and Chris comes in and they find out that no one knows where the fire is so C.D is forced to improv a scenario similar to a scene that happens near the end of the movie where C.D indeed does use his nose to find a fire. Or, what if Martin plays it off as a false alarm and then pulls Chris aside and charms him into not going back to Roxanne's house but rather to woo her with abstinence. It would alleviate a little of the ick factor, especially when Chris humblebrags that he could only have sex three times that night, and it would allow Martin's best quality to shine through, his razor sharp wit.

There are plenty more example of Pratfall-A-Rama in "Roxanne." Take for instance every scene involving the other firefighters. Each bit with Martin's firefighters is there only to pad the runtime and add more physical gags. There are a number of gags regarding C.D’s firefighters being the worst firefighters imaginable that are really just more examples of “Pratfall-A-Rama.” Take for instance a scene where C.D, covertly writing a letter to Roxanne as Chris, repeatedly misses the gag happening behind him that somehow water has gotten loose and one of his firefighters is repeatedly bobbing up and down behind him and disappearing each time C.D turns around. The gag is just a bit of business used to cover up the fact that we rarely get to hear the supposedly romantic and poetic things C.D has written to Roxanne. It's meant only to fill the space that would otherwise just be music over watching someone write a letter.

Ok, now I am coming off like I hate “Roxanne” but I don’t hate it, not really (aside from the super-creepy stuff which is an essay all its own). The film is deeply flawed but it also has charm. Steve Martin has wonderful chemistry with each of the main characters, especially with Darryl Hannah. Hannah is not one of my favorite actresses but she has a lovely earnest quality that plays well off of Martin when he calms down and just employs his wit rather than physical antics.

Take for instance, the genuinely delightful meet-cute. Hannah’s Roxanne has just moved to town and into a new house. Her cat got outside and she’s trying to bring her in when the door shuts behind her and traps the robe she’s wearing. With no way to get back into her house, and stark naked, she makes her way through the bushes to the fire department where she meets C.D who accepts her situation with charming aplomb. Martin’s bit about not getting irony is one of the few big laughs in the movie, immediately followed by the second big laugh in which we find that the toolbox C.D is carrying only contains a credit card that he attempts to use to pick the lock. The punchline about how the "this door doesn’t take Mastercard” is pure charm.

Had Martin maintained his wit instead of throwing himself around like a rag doll “Roxanne” had the potential to be one of the great romantic comedies of the 80’s and would have introduced the kind of Steve Martin performance that he’s attempted so many times since “Roxanne” to varying success, the sophisticated Californian with the sharpest wit in the room. In the end, it is that failure to meet the potential of “Roxanne” that is the reason I no longer love “Roxanne” (again, also the creepy stuff). I desperately want this movie to be something that it is not. As it is, It’s mediocre, more than a little creepy, with occasional charm but it could have been so much more. 

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Sean Patrick
Sean Patrick

I have been a film critic for more than 17 years and worked professionally, as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for the past 6 years. My favorite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski because it always feels new. 

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