Let's Get Small-Time

Bowfinger
area theaters, starts Friday

For a guy who titled his late-Seventies standup album Comedy Is Not Pretty, Steve Martin has been writing some very lovely comedy in the New Yorker, creating satires with intelligent absurdity and a touch of the philosophical. But now, eight years after his sprightly screenplay for L.A. Story, and well into his career as a playwright and fiction writer, the onetime wild and crazy guy seems at first glance to have turned back the clock almost as far as 1979's The Jerk with his latest movie, Bowfinger. Besides co-starring for the first time with Saturday Night Live alum Eddie Murphy, Martin has penned an extremely goofy script driven by a single, silly gag: A filmmaker tries to get the biggest name in Hollywood to act in his low-budget movie--and when that fails, he simply makes the movie without the star's consent.

Bowfinger is named for the shabbily dressed producer-director (Martin) who operates Bowfinger International Pictures out of a cluttered house of old scripts, flyers advertising his "Learn how to act" seminars, and movie posters touting tacky productions such as The Yugo Story and Muffy Time. Pacing through this mess of a live-in office is the 49-year-old Bobby Bowfinger, wearing a tattered getup straight out of the Seventies and a clip-on ponytail that looks like something he tore off My Little Pony. Nevertheless, he still dreams of being important enough to warrant a visit from the FedEx man. Inspired by a script for an alien flick called Chubby Rain, written by his accountant and part-time receptionist Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), Bowfinger proclaims to his motley cast of out-of-work actors that it's now or never. He's going to make Chubby Rain, dammit, and the hot Hollywood actor du jour, Kit Ramsey (Murphy), is going to star in it.

Hollywood high and low: Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin in Bowfinger
Hollywood high and low: Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin in Bowfinger

Of course, Bowfinger can't get Ramsey to read the script, let alone star in his crappy movie. So he devises a scheme (which is also Martin's scheme of putting himself back in the role of the lovable con artist) of filming Ramsey without his knowledge. "Tom Cruise didn't know he was in that vampire movie until two years later," he rationalizes. Telling his cast that the star works in a style known as "nouveau cinema," Bowfinger has his actors approach a very confused and freaked-out Ramsey in public and recite their lines to him. It doesn't matter what the star says in response, Bowfinger reasons, because "it's an action movie."

While this premise could have tired very quickly, it remains funny and inventive in Martin's nimble hands. In today's comedy climate, Martin is practically unique for resisting gross-out humor (no one makes love to a pie here), instead favoring the clever turn of phrase and the occasional pratfall. Compared to the new style of shock humor, some of Martin's gags almost seem quaint, as when Bowfinger ties his dog's legs with a rubber band in order to keep its private parts hidden during a big date with Chubby Rain's female lead, Daisy (Heather Graham).

Martin's delicate style plays well off Murphy's brash Ramsey, a motor-mouthed celebrity with a band of toadies, a theory that everything any white man does is racist, and a membership in Mind Head, a none-too-veiled parody of Scientology. Murphy plays this paranoid, big baby of a movie star without smoothing out his rough edges (and without the gobs of makeup behind which he has hidden in other recent work). His character is certainly a stereotype, born of Martin's cynical attitudes toward Hollywood. But with Martin, cynicism is always layered with playful inanity, and the stereotypes milked for mild pathos. At Mind Head, Kit heals his weary celebrity soul by repeating affirmations called "Happy Premises." "Even though I feel like I might ignite," he says, "I probably won't."

When Ramsey checks in to Mind Head's celebrity center for some intensive healing, Bowfinger must replace him with a look-alike--the nerdy, Jerry Lewis-esque errand boy, Jiff (also played by Murphy), who's constantly scrunching his eyes, flaunting the braces on his teeth, and exclaiming, "Awesome!" Murphy's dual role here allows him to get him more mileage out of the split-personality shtick from The Nutty Professor, playing both the smooth operator and the hopeless geek. As for Martin's own two sides, Bowfinger finds the screenwriter leaning more heavily on the silly rather than the cerebral: no calm meditations on the meaning of life and love here, à la L.A. Story or his play Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Still, his mature, lyrical touch does manage to sneak its way in. Tucked beneath the L.A. showbiz caricatures is a theme familiar not only to Martin (and Bowfinger) but to any Hollywood artist of integrity: the wistful search for meaning in a world based on illusion.

 
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