A Look Back: Roxanne

I’m no social psychologist, but I’ve noticed that the laughter in the movie theater tends to follow one of the four patterns.

1) No one laughs because the movie’s about an ultra-serious subject.

2) One or two people laugh intermittently throughout the whole thing.

3) Several “pockets” of people laugh consistently, perhaps not caring so much what the rest of the audience thinks as long as their companions also find the movie funny.

4) In at least one scene, the entire audience cracks up and enjoys a communal moment of mirth.

Most of the time, 4) does not happen, at least at the films I see. Humor is a subjective thing. But one time it memorably did was when I saw the movie “Roxanne,” a modern day “Cyrano De Bergerac” starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah. The particular scene was the one when Steve’s character is insulted by the original insult “Big Nose,” as he passes a drunk. Instead of doing what he usually does: resorting to skillful physical violence, he decides to confront the guy directly and offer at least 20 insults far more cleverer.

If you keep track, it’s clear that he goes over the stated number (though this isn’t addressed in the film). Just quoting the monologue removes a few layers of humor, it’s something that’s best watched firsthand. I don’t know how well it would hold up if I saw it now, but I remember how virtually everyone in my audience watching the movie in the theater was in stitches during this particular scene (though most people in my memory found the rest of the film amusing, too).

The movie begins by establishing that Steve’s character (his name changed to the more prosaic C.D. Beals) is a firefighter in a small town, who, unlike the rest of his crew, possesses a) irony and b) intelligence, the former of which he tells love interest Daryl Hannah that he stopped practicing years ago because he got tired of being stared at.  As for intelligence, it’s demonstrated in several scenes, including one in which his fellow firemen struggle with a ladder to rescue a treed cat, while Steve simply opens a can of food and flushes the cat out right away.

We also learn (along with newbie firefighter, Rick Rossovich) that Steve is quite sensitive about his nose, and it’s best not stare or make any open remarks on the subject. Unfortunately, Rick, who is handsome but not too bright, can’t keep from blurting out something tactless, but he unexpectedly gets a pass because Steve is in the first flush of love with Daryl, a gorgeous astronomer. Rick is also attracted to Daryl, and eventually, Steve agrees to coach him in the art of witty wooing banter when he goes over to Daryl’s home.

This does not go smoothly – at one point, Steve tells Rick to say that he is scared of words, which Rick mishears as “worms,” and pretty soon Daryl is both confused and disgusted, however, she does wind up hooking up with Rick (who tells Steve the next day that he just shut his mouth and didn’t say a word during the seduction).   Wacky high jinks continue until Steve winds up composing a series of romantic letters and then admitting the truth.  And Daryl realizes that it is possible to love a guy for more than his outward appearance, so there’s a welcome happy ending.

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