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Half of It combines high school and Cyrano

In the tradition of Clueless and The Easy A, the new Netflix release called The Half of It transfers a classic piece of literature to a high school setting while maintaining the source material’s ultimate message. 

For The Half It, writer-director Alice Wu shifts basic concepts from the play Cyrano de Bergerac, whose movie versions earned an Oscar nomination for Gerard Depardieu and the best actor statue for Jose Ferrer. Others may know the story better from its Steve Martin incarnation into the movie Roxanne, where an ugly guy writes beautiful words that a lovely woman thinks her handsome beau created. In this new version, the big nosed man transforms into an unlikely suitor played by Leah Lewis as a smart, shy Chinese immigrant in Washington state. Initially using pen and paper but quickly switching to texting, she helps a dufus, cute guy pursue a much more intelligent senior girl. By giving the mutual love interest depth and intellect, The Half of It improves on one aspect of the original that always bothered me: like the woman who goes for a pretty face, Cyrano also falls for beauty over character.  The altered approach inspired me to go back and take another look at the stagey 1950 version of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Jose Ferrer. I own a copy, but streaming sources like Amazon have it, too.  The older incarnation features highly visual elements not found in the high school update, including choreographed moves highlighting Cyrano’s skill as a great swordsman.  And of course, the play—even it its English translations—offers brilliant, gorgeously written monologues that provide a dream role for actors whose abilities include dulcet tones and perfect phrasing. The Cyrano story leads to a heartrending conclusion rather than the open ended rom-com twist for The Half of It.  Clearly, the new movie—which just won a major award from the Tribeca Film Festival—should never replace Cyrano de Bergerac. Still, the update gains substance when attraction comes from the duo’s shared fascination with arts, culture, and expression. These new dynamics work cleverly, making for bright and insightful entertainment.

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