Bowfinger is a tribute to bad movie-making. You know the kind I’m talking about: movies where the microphone dips into view, the actors wear their own clothes and the special effects were bought at K-Mart.
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Hollywood keeps churning out le cinema stinko….but that’s okay because it helps sustain the natural order of things in our culture. For every Schindler’s List, someone has to make a Teenage Bimbos From Mars.
In this case, that someone is Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) and the movie in question is a cheddary sci-fi effort called Chubby Rain. Bowfinger is a down-on-his-luck producer-director whose dreams far exceed his abilities. He’s like the kid from Topeka who got off the bus in Hollywood with permanent stardust in his eyes. He’s got a film company (well, sort of—Bowfinger International Pictures operates out of his run-down bungalow), but no film.
Then, one day, his accountant hands him a script he’s written (hey, this is Hollywood—the land where everyone’s written a script). Bowfinger reads Chubby Rain and the stardust starts twinkling in his eyes again. "I smell Oscar!" he crows. But we know better. After all, Chubby Rain’s catch phrase is "Gotcha suckas!" Quick, someone call Ed Wood.
Indeed, Bowfinger does resemble Tim Burton’s comic portrait of the world’s worst director. Brilliantly written by Martin and directed by Frank Oz, Bowfinger is a satire that skewers Hollywood from the inside out. Martin’s been hanging around the edges of the movie industry for decades now and I can just picture him standing off in the wings taking notes in preparation for this script. He wields his pen like a sword and it’s great to see him get sweet revenge on an industry that forced him to make such cinema stinko as Sgt. Bilko and The Man With Two Brains.
Trouble is, the jokes are so "inside" that some of us on the outside might not get them. The in-and-out-of-rehab Robert Downey Jr. playing a studio executive, for instance; or Bowfinger’s clip-on ponytail—throwaway references to the Tinseltown trade that run like a current underneath the entire movie. Still, it’s not as completely inside as The Player.
The other part of Bowfinger that doesn’t succeed as well as it should is in the performances of Bowfinger’s ragtag crew. Christine Baranski, Heather Graham and Kohl Sudduth as the B-movie actors all play their roles way over the top. They’re such simpletons that I wondered if they somehow thought they were shooting The Man With No Brains. I realize this is satire, but it would have been much funnier if the troupers hadn’t been such one-note stereotypes.
What saves the movie are the performances from Martin and Eddie Murphy (I can’t believe I got this far without mentioning him). Murphy gives two great performances as the paranoid action star Kit Ramsey and the simple-minded lookalike Jiff who is hired by Bowfinger when Ramsey refuses to appear in Chubby Rain.
As the action superstar, Ramsey is a nervous wreck, suffering from delusions that aliens are invading the earth. What a break for Bowfinger because that’s exactly what Chubby Rain is about. After Ramsey won’t give the struggling director the time of day, Bowfinger hits upon a plan to shoot the movie around him. As the crew secretly films Ramsey, the actors rush up to him and deliver lines like "Beware of the pod people!" before dashing off again. When they can’t film Ramsey for a crucial scene, they hire Jiff to do all the hard stuff like walking across a busy interstate at rush hour. (Here’s another inside joke: Murphy had an identical scene in the box office bomb Holy Man where he strode confidently between the whizzing cars; here, Jiff is reduced to a puddle of fear when he makes his mad dash across the interstate.)
Murphy pulls out all the stops in both roles, spoofing ego-laden superstars as Kit while giving a sweetly funny performance as the endearing Jiff. Just as Martin gets to sinks his revenge claws into the industry, Murphy also seems to be enjoying his just deserts for laugh-free movies like Life and Dr. Dolittle.
All in all, Bowfinger is one of those smart comedies that may be too smart for its own good. It’s not the laughfest that the blurbs proclaim it to be—more like a chucklefest—but there are enough sharp jabs at Hollywood to keep it applying Band-Aids for years to come.
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