Steve Martin is a smart humorist, and his new movie seems designed to underscore the point. ``Roxanne'' is his rewrite of Edmond Rostand's great play ``Cyrano de Bergerac,'' featuring Martin as a present-day incarnation of the hero with a brilliant mind and a big, big nose. His name is C.D. Bales, and like Cyrano himself, he's a master of many arts. The opening credits have barely stopped before a couple of scoundrels pitch a nose-nasty wisecrack at him, and instantly he's fighting a duel to defend his honor - not with swords, since this is the modern Pacific Northwest, but with a tennis racket and a golfclub. The silliness of his weaponry makes victory no less sweet.
And fencing isn't his only talent. He runs the town's fire department, scales the walls of houses with the grace of an acrobat, and wins insult competitions in the local saloon. What's more - the key to any ``Cyrano'' spinoff - he has a flair for writing.
He also has a bashful pal named Chris, who can't even speak in the presence of his lady love, much less send her a poetic love note. Trouble is: Chris's love and C.D.'s are one and the same woman: Roxanne, a doe-eyed astronomer who has half the men in town seeing stars.
Figuring she'd never love a funny-looking guy like him anyway, C.D. vows to help Chris win her. This leads to some classical ``Cyrano'' situations, as C.D. spouts romantic lines and dashes off lovelorn letters in Chris's name - even though the thoughts and passions are his own, and he feels them deeply.
``Roxanne'' was directed by Australian filmmaker Fred Schepisi, who has ``Plenty'' and ``The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'' among his credits. Still, it's clearly Martin's project all the way - he's writer and executive producer as well as star - and he's the movie's greatest on-screen asset.
His big-nose makeup is annoying to look at for so long, but behind that schnozz there buzzes the brain of a most audacious comedian. His portrait of C.D. is heartfelt but unsentimental, as light on its toes as Martin himself as he half-strolls, half-dances down the village streets. And he knows how to speak even a semifunny line with such offhand skill that you giggle helplessly. ``Roxanne'' has more sheer laughs than any picture in ages.
Daryl Hannah isn't so strong in the title role. While she has the glamour that's needed, there's not enough to her performance - you don't sense the intellectual depth that's essential to Martin's concept of the character. Rick Rossovich plays tongue-tied Chris as such a clunker you can't imagine Miss Piggy falling for him, much less Roxanne, but that's Hollywood romance for you.
Smaller roles are superbly handled by Shelley Duvall - with a new maturity that's delightful to discover - and Michael J. Pollard, always a marvelously eccentric actor, cast cleverly against type as a Renaissance man of the firehouse.
Diverting as it is, ``Roxanne'' would be a still better film if Martin had trusted more in Rostand's classic and less in Hollywood's idea of a cute story. Wearing his screenwriter hat, Martin tosses ``Cyrano'' out the window long before the end, steering the plot into a let-down finale that sends Chris to Nevada with a new girlfriend, and C.D. into the arms of a newly receptive Roxanne.
Martin has the makings of an uncommonly bold talent - just look at the offbeat projects that pepper his career, from ``Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid'' to ``Pennies From Heaven'' and others. It was bold to translate Rostand's soaringly wordstruck play to the popular screen, but it was a disappointing decision to fudge its outcome so crazily. ``Roxanne'' is a fun movie. It could have been a major one.
The picture's rating is PG, reflecting some vulgar jokes and a little rude language.