Roxanne falls into this trap to a certain extent. It tries for humor from time to time and many of its jokes fail. Those that work do so primarily because of Steve Martin, who was at the height of his comedic powers when the film was made and sports an amazing prosthetic nose. His character also has the requisite amount of nastiness required to be funny. He's not just insensitive or smug, as most romantic comedy heroes are, but downright cruel. His colleagues in the firehouse flinch whenever someone mentions the nose because he has a tendency to react with violence. His character is rife with comedic possibilities.
Despite this Roxanne's merit does not lie primarily in its comedy. It lies in the romance. It's an old story, literally, a direct rip from Cyrano de Bergerac down to the oversized nose (with some elements of modernization of course. In the original Cyrano was not the fire chief of a New England town.) It's a timeless tale of the irrational and unrelenting hold a beautiful woman can place on a man's heart, even a bright and capable man. Even a man who knows he can never have her. The film takes us through the entirety of the journey. The initial meeting where he sees not only her physical beauty but her grace and intelligence. Where his entire world opens up anew and is transformed before his eyes into a place where the spectacular is commonplace. Where he begins to dream. The next phase is hope and the film shows this well. Martin's character is transformed in his transformed world. He is no longer worried about how people perceive his nose because it doesn't matter what their opinions are. All that matters is hers.
It is at this point that the film makes the first of its excellent choices. It makes Martin's rival, the man who Roxanne is really attracted to, an amiable dope. It is important that he be amiable because we have to like him, at least a little. If he's just a jerk then Roxanne's attraction to him tarnishes her radiance. He has to be a dope because we can't see him as a truly worthy competitor to Martin's character. He's got a nice body and a pleasant disposition but nothing more. At the beginning of the film Roxanne complains about her last relationship, saying that she mistook sex for love. We know that's not what she wants now and we know that's all the fellow Martin's competing against is good for.
The film continues with the Cyrano plot and shows the bitter disappointment of Martin's character at learning that he's not the object of Roxanne's desire along with his attempts to deny the power of his passion by aiding his rival. He tries to transcend his rejection by helping another man into her bed. Show that he's the bigger man, that he wasn't really that hurt, all the rest of it. Except that the other man needs more help than he expects, and as he plays out his part in the game he finds himself able to use the other man as a mask while he tells Roxanne how he feels about her. The scene where he speaks from the bushes up to her balcony is one of the few scenes in modern Cinema where words and language are given respect. His speech is singularly beautiful, yet awkward enough to be extemporaneous (Okay I ganked an important word from the film, sick the lawyers on me) When he tells her to think of him as the one who loved her without limits Martin has this look in his eye filled with sadness and bliss and the need to sneeze.
It is in this scene that the film makes its next good choice. It has the rival go upstairs and screw her three times that night. It has Martin's character go home alone, filled with joy and love and resentment and misery. He comes across some old ladies and cruelly sicks them on the paramours. If a cat wandered by you have a feeling he might kick it.
This is both true to life and to art. Just loving from the safety of the bushes is not enough. At the end of the film he tells her that she should have known it was him in the bushes instead of the meathead. She tells him that he should have come out and announced himself. They're both right. His love is spectacular and all consuming. His bravery is lacking. He ends up going home alone with the meathead screws her.
The remainder of the film is basically the denouement. We know that Martin's Fire Chief and Roxanne will get together. This is a Hollywood film after all. She goes out of town and he writes her love letters in a continuation of the balcony scene. The meathead realizes he's in over his head and moves on, as well-meaning meatheads tend to do. Eventually they get together. She expresses her feelings for the first time and tells him he makes her feel feminine. They kiss around the big nose. Fade to black.
The film has a bunch of problems. As I stated earlier it's not as funny as a comedy really ought to be. It features Daryl Hannah as an astronomer. Umm...yeah. There's all sorts of little stuff that doesn't work and there's not ENOUGH of the tortured romance. On the other hand what it gets right speaks to me in profound ways.
I think Martin does a marvelous job as C.D. (Cyrano De, get it? Haha) He imbues a character who has a lot of jerky qualities with such humanity and fundamental goodness that you never stop rooting for him even when he's being a jerk. The film makes the right choice most of the time. Most importantly it nails the relationship, that of the undesirable male to a gorgeous female, perfectly. Roxanne is a geek's delight. I'll explain why.
First of all she's beautiful. I know that this is horribly sexist considering the fact that C.D. is supposed to be rather unattractive, but I'm not going to deny the sexism of the film. Secondly she's vulnerable. She comes to him naked, locked out of her home. She needs his help and she's in a sexualized position to begin with. Thirdly she's smart and sweet. He doesn't have to doubt himself for loving her because she's not merely lovely in an outward way. In the scene where she teaches him what quarks are you can see him allowing his heart to open. "Okay" he says "She's not just a pretty face. I can love her." She's also remarkably passive. Throughout the film she acts as a vessel for love and affection. She has C.D. ask meathead to ask her out. After he sends her his beautiful letter she demands more beauty. She does not feel compelled to reciprocate but rather acts as an audience, always demanding. In the end, after C.D. has proved his heroism, she comes to him and only then, after he has earned it, does she bestow her affection. Before then she's just an appreciator.
And that's what geeks want, really. A beautiful vulnerable sweet and intelligent girl who they can earn. It's the fantasy of many. They don't want a true equal because that's scary. If she's your equal in intelligence and wit but more beautiful and nicer than you are then what do you have to offer her? Why wouldn't she leave you? There's a power imbalance. Insecure guys want a girl to appreciate them. To look at what they can do and say "Wow, I am very impressed by that. You have quite the talent. I would be willing to entertain your penis within my vagina." P.S. Yes I know that this is the attitude that makes girls choose between being attractive to men and doing their best in school/work. I didn't invent the dynamic.
It's important that C.D. does not write Roxanne a love note until he knows that she wants to receive it. He does not want to operate from a position of vulnerability. He's too afraid of being hurt. Once he has a pretty face to use as a pseudonym he can pour forth his feelings. He knows she's a receptive audience.
I won't deny that I connect to this film on a personal level. It reflects a permutation of a personal fantasy. I've often wished there were a beautiful girl out there just sitting around like a treasure, waiting for someone to come along with the skills to win her heart. I have confidence in at least some of my abilities, especially when it comes to putting words together, and I would love a chance to try to use them to make up for some of my more obvious failings. Like virtually every guy I think that I have the requisite kindness and strength to make a woman happy if only she would just give me a chance. This is why a lot of guys get bitter. We're firmly convinced that we have what it takes to make her happy, but she's not giving us our window to prove it. Much of this is self-imposed of course. There's nothing that stops us from just asking her out, except the fear of rejection. The fear that if we ask for the opportunity she'll turn us down and we'll be left without even the fantasy.
I can explain a lot of behavior through the lens of Roxanne . In summer camp I actually played out the Cyrano part briefly, and the whole thing went much like it did in the movie. I can still remember her tearing up when someone ripped up the letters, even though she had long known they were false. They were just that beautiful in her eyes. Of course that thing never got consummated. In the end she wasn't worth it and I saw that. She wasn't sweet and loyal, and what's the point of winning a girl without those qualities? I left camp early partially to get away from the situation and the temptation that still remained.
Then there's the college crushes, two major ones which were both pretty much the same scenario. One girl I tried to win over with wit and charm, and it flopped completely. The other, the infamous LHG (an intentionally ridiculous title you must understand) I kept waiting to give me a sign that I should try something. She never did and all my flowery language and passion went into this journal to be buried in the archives by time and my overactive posting habits. There were a couple of times when she might have been hinting at something. When she asked a classmate to repeat a joke I made, or when she broke into a conversation we were having. Once she asked the whole class for notes and I cursed my terrible handwriting and lack of proper written notation with words that are not suitable for a family oriented website. The point is that she seemed to have all the necessary qualifications, beauty, grace, intelligence that was respectable but not necessarily at my level (Hello, I'm an arrogant prick, hope you're not surprised) and a sweetness about her. I should say apparent sweetness. If she knew what I was going through and put her feet up on my chair that last class on purpose...well...that would not have been a sweet thing to do.
I'm losing my point. That point is that the geeky Cyrano model (which does not NECESSARILY include a meathead rival, mind you) has been applicable to my style of attraction and plays a heavy role in my rich fantasy life. I think the attraction is that you can earn a woman who will appreciate you, be a little bit in awe of you, and provide feminine comforts and sexual bliss without the risk of her being stolen away because anyone who could match your wit and soulful poetry would be unable to penetrate her unavailability and she'd be too sweet to cheat on you with a forceful jerk.
I'm not saying it's a realistic model, or that if it did exist it'd be a functional one. Desire isn't rational or functional. The underlying emotions seem good to me, though. The desire to be justifiably loved by a beautiful creature. The hope that your advances will not be unwanted. The need for approval and an audience. The dream of everlasting love and mutual desire. You love her because she's feminine and good and kind and beautiful. She loves you because you can appreciate and express those qualities in her, because your desire is purer than that of the others, because you make her laugh and think and feel. Does it objectify? Yes. Most certainly. Does it naturally limit the growth of the relationship? Probably. Part of the nature of the scenario is that she is not an equal. A near equal perhaps, but not an equal.
It's the sort of pedestal placing romanticized virginal and sentimental approach to love that was outdated even when the movie was made. These days a beautiful woman who isn't yours needs melodramatic love letters and ornate appreciation like a fish needs a jet ski.
It remains lovely.