*** (A must-see)

Directed by Fred Schepisi

Written by Steve Martin

With Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, and Shelley Duvall.

Romance–the sweet, ripe kind, not adolescent heavy petting–is a rare quality these days. If it appears at all, it is usually in the grand gestures of a Blake Edwards or the glossy overstatements of a Sydney Pollack. The heartfelt kind that deals in quiet yearnings and whispered pleadings has gone the way of the Model T, five-cent sodas, and Buster Keaton. The whole of contemporary humor, with its aloof understatement and unimpressed sarcasm, is the enemy of anything so naive. Can you imagine any of the TV comedians who dominate film comedy reacting to a poignant declaration of love? Especially from an unattractive person, someone whose body is a perfect butt for humor? Bill Murray, Michael Keaton, or Steve Martin would skewer any such fool.

At least most of the time. For in his latest film, Roxanne, which he also wrote, Martin has made a self-conscious attempt to adjust his style of humor and come up with what amounts to a 107-minute love letter. Although it is peppered with jokes, the movie is Hollywood’s most sincere declaration of belief in the transcendent power of love since Victor/Victoria a long five years ago.

This type of story requires a peculiar talent, and though Martin has displayed it in doses he’s never revealed it so fully. He came close in All of Me, which was easily the best movie he and his frequent collaborator, director Carl Reiner, had ever made. There, however, Martin–once again contributing to the script–didn’t really change his familiar persona. He was basically a wise guy, deflating overblown targets with sharp one-liners. But the movie came up with his female counterpart in the person of a cranky millionairess played by Lily Tomlin. Martin and Tomlin’s characters were so alike that they were almost fated to be together, and the movie’s gimmick of having them inhabit the same body didn’t seem so farfetched given their emotional affinities. Entertaining though it was, All of Me went through terrible contrivances–including bestowing a conventionally appealing body on Tomlin’s character–in order to build up to the film’s final romantic image of the two stars, reflected in a mirror, swirling around a ballroom floor. In retrospect, it looks like that single image was what Martin was pursuing, his siren song of a love that attained both grace and beauty.

In Roxanne, Martin has again settled on a contrivance, but it’s a particularly rich–and reliable–one: ugliness. Together with director Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), he has fashioned an updated version of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the story of a gallant and peerless swordsman, blessed with a silver tongue and a poetic imagination, yet forever marred and barred from female adulation by an unsightly, epic nose. The choice of Cyrano is a keen one, for the story is already a send-up comedy. Rostand penned his story in late 19th-century Paris, a milieu as materialistic, cynical, and cold as our own. His play looked back at the excessively romantic self-image of a preceding age and mocked its notion of chivalric pride.

The character of Cyrano was a deadly one; twiddle his nose, and thus his image as a dashing chevalier, and you I were doomed. In one of the play’s more famous passages, another swordsman makes fun of Cyrano’s nose. Cyrano first composes a litany of insults much cleverer than his opponent’s, then challenges the poor fool to a duel. As their swords flash, Cyrano extemporizes a poem about the fight, then, right on the concluding line, runs his opponent through. The joke, of course, is that this display of knightly vengeance is provoked by something so trivial–though perhaps not minor–as a big nose. And when it comes to having the courage to woo a maiden, Cyrano turns bashful to the point of cravenness, and retreats to a role of ghostwriter for a young friend.

Martin’s character, C.D. Bales, is a creature of similar professional and poetic gifts, but rather than a parody of the past he is a paragon of the present. As written and played by Martin, Bales is a figure of comparatively towering accomplishment and rectitude in a small town beset by ineptitude and moral confusion. Director Schepisi does a marvelous job of establishing Bales’s special position the first time he shows him to us. The town where the action unfolds–Nelson, Washington–is a small ski resort perched on steep hills. Schepisi, though, shoots everything parallel to sea level, so almost all the action seems to occur at unsettlingly precarious angles. Everyone seems to be slipping around at 45 degrees, except for Bales, whom we first see striding purposefully off to work, surefooted and swift. The first townspeople he encounters are a pair of drunks staggering uphill making only minimal progress. They immediately start poking fun at Bales’s nose. Insults soon escalate to assault, but with the aid of a tennis racket Bales easily disposes of his antagonists.

Bales exercises a similar, though unwelcome, superiority in his job as town fire chief. He is as strong and acrobatic as his volunteers are weak and clumsy, utterly incapable of aiming a stream of water at a fire. It is an exasperating job for Bales, and his only defense is to handle as much of the work as he can and meet everything else with pithy ironies.

So, Bales epitomizes the virtues of the contemporary comic: Olympian in his disdain for the foolishness around him, yet determined not to lose his cool over it. Like Cyrano, C.D. is the perfect man of his times, but his time is now, not the past, and his virtues are to be admired, not laughed at. So, it is no surprise that when a naked woman shows up at the firehouse door to complain about being locked out of her house, an unruffled C.D. decides to handle the crisis himself rather than alert the dim bulbs who work for him. Ignoring her nudity, C.D. gets the girl into her house with some startling stunts and almost, but not quite, sweeps her off her feet with witty repartee.

But as the story unfolds in its familiar hues, C.D. inevitably fails to press his attentions on the girl, Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), who turns out to be an astronomer, and passively waits for her to see below his surface imperfection. However, a young hunk, Chris (Rick Rossovich), arrives in town to help C.D. run the fire department, and immediately rouses Roxanne’s hormones. Before C.D. knows it, he’s been drafted by the tongue-tied Chris into ghostwriting love letters and prompting courtly speeches. He is pouring his heart out to the woman he loves, all for the sake of another suitor.

Martin and Schepisi freshen the familiar material, mostly by recasting its tone. C.D. is far less lampooned by his creators than Cyrano was by his. However, C.D. does suffer a diminution that Cyrano mostly avoids, and that is becoming a prisoner of self-pity. C.D. reacts to his supporting role not with anger or showy pride, but with semipublic displays of whining. Cyrano’s sadnesses were for empty stages; C.D.’s are for doctors’ offices and coffee shops.

And when C.D. does display anger, it’s with considerably reduced force. The updated version of Cyrano’s rhyming run-through is a confrontation in a fern bar, when C.D. performs the feat minus the poetry and with a merely disabling, and far from fatal blow. He doesn’t want to frighten and kill his opponent, just make him feel bad.

This Roxanne is as modern in its faults as in its virtues. Roxanne herself isn’t all that big a deal. Lovely to look at, and with a suitably intriguing job, Roxanne has drifted into the role of postfeminist careerism with the same ease and passivity as her predecessor eased into a life of aristocratic decorativeness. Daryl Hannah does lend an intelligent edge to Roxanne–mostly with a sharp gaze and edgy voice–but there’s ultimately not much there. In fact, everyone in the movie is so petrified of looking stupid or overeager, it’s a wonder anything ever does happen.

However, the cut-rate prize that Roxanne represents fits perfectly into the world that Martin and Schepisi have invented. After all, this is a romance that unfolds in singles bars, trendy-looking ice cream parlors, and kitchens full of blond wood. C.D.’s best friend (Shelley Duvall) is a waitress who is a part-time gouging realtor, and the town’s mayor (Fred Willard in a typically funny appearance) is a glad-handing schemer and nincompoop whose idea of an off-season promotion is Oktoberfest in July. This is a depressingly familiar environment, and a very contemporary one. Without ever emphasizing it, the filmmakers have created one of the sharpest and most disparaging images not so much of modern life as of modern aspirations.

Martin once put out a record called Let’s Get Small, and that always seemed to be the slogan that animated his comedy. Martin has always zeroed in on the contradictions between shrunken life and great expectations. There was a skit he did on the old Saturday Night Live in which he played a white-suited bar patron who, looking across a dance floor, spied a girl. The lights dimmed, and in a fantasy sequence Martin held the girl in his arms and swept her across the dance floor in an Astaire-Rogers flourish. Except, of course, the character was just faking it, comically shuffling his feet and mugging outrageously. But the humor didn’t diminish the force of the desire that graceless people in tacky bars might somehow become animated by large emotions. Life is small now, and Roxanne is the ultimate expression of that forlorn yearning, which is what makes it, despite its comedy and “happy” ending, a poignant work. Using that happy/sad tension, Martin voices the impolite, uncool hunger that is fashionably stifled and dismissed.