At the top of his game, there's no one quite like Steve Martin. A combination of ham-handed vaudevillian and ironic commentator, he makes straight man roles inherently loopy and can deliver the zaniest dialogue with a stone face. Who else could deliver the overused "and by X I mean Y" joke construct and make it seem as if he'd just invented it? Apart from Andy Kaufman, no other modern comedian could lay such a concrete claim to being a "song and dance man," given his work in front of and behind the camera as well as forays into banjo playing. Starting in the late '80s Martin reinvented his comic persona to take on a more contemplative and satiric bent, and Bowfinger is the capper of his second era, the one that gave us hits like Parenthood and the classics Planes, Trains and Automobiles and L.A. Story.
Like L.A. Story, Bowfinger takes aim at life in Los Angeles, but Martin this time focuses more on Hollywood and the craft of filmmaking than the all-encompassing feeling of his masterpiece. He plays Bobby Bowfinger, a middle-aged cinephile who's devoted his life to running a production company and has only an empty shell of one to show for it. He prevents his actress friend from getting work because he's always convinced that the right script is just about to fall in his lap, and the only person he ever confides in is a young camera operator named Dave (Jamie Kennedy). Bowfinger's been content to string along the small band of denied dreamers for years, but he finally sees the writing on the wall as he approaches his 50th birthday -- in true Martin style, he says that, at 49, he can still pass for 44, well, 41. Well, 38, but at 50 you're done -- and he concentrates on getting just one picture done before Hollywood declares him dead.
So, when his accountant hands him a script entitled Chubby Rain, about aliens who invade Earth via raindrops, he leaps into action. Bowfinger gives a moving speech to Dave about saving up a dollar a week since he was 10 to make a film someday, and he triumphantly opens a box full of singles and announces that he has a whopping $2,184 from his diligence. That's the first big laugh of the film, and Martin kicks things into high gear at this point, highlighting this goofy band of misfits as they scramble to make a film.
Amazingly, for all its silliness and off-kilter charm, every little piece of Martin's script works. Heather Graham shows up as a sweet Midwestern gal who dreams of being in the movies, but as soon as she lands a part in the picture she demonstrates a keen grasp on sexual politics: she hangs off of Dave and Afrim the accountant until she makes her way to Bowfinger himself. She even displays a willingness to "switch teams" to get ahead (a commentary on Martin's brief relationship with Anne Heche, perhaps?). Bowfinger uses Dave's occupation as a studio-employed cameraman to nick equipment for free, much to Dave's constant fear. Pent up for years, possibly decades, waiting for Bobby to make a film to liberate her, Carol hysterically falls into every bad acting trope in the book, be it a terrible and wholly unsolicited British accent or a sudden case of ego.
Martin weathers everything he throws at his sadsack with adroit timing. Chubby Rain takes the term "guerrilla filmmaking" to new levels, as Bowfinger pulls up to streets in L.A., unloads his crew and tries to get in a few takes before the cops show up looking for a permit. In a brilliant piece of Hollywood satire, a cop pulls up to check their paperwork before it's even fully apparent that they're there to shoot something, only for Martin to offer the officer a role instead. When he discovers that Daisy's love extends only as far as the next rung on the social ladder, he confronts her over her infidelity. "So?" she asks in a tone that betrays how meaningless sex and sexual partners are to her, and Martin takes only enough time to run his eyes up and down Graham's figure before replying, "You know, I never thought of it that way."
As good as Martin is, though, it's Eddie Murphy who makes the movie, putting in his second finest performance(s) after The Nutty Professor. He plays Kit Ramsey, the most bankable movie star in Hollywood but also the victim of mental instability and paranoia. Imagine then his utter terror when Bowfinger, who needs Ramsey to sell his film to a distributor (Robert Downey, Jr.) but doesn't have remotely the money needed to pay Ramsey's rate, simply decides to film the actor without his knowledge, much less consent. Bowfinger convinces his actors that Ramsey is simply method acting, so they run up to him on the street and recite their lines concerning alien invasions, or they trigger squibs and other gory effects to seemingly melt before his eyes. Murphy fleshes out Ramsey with very little screen time, establishing him first as an egomaniac with a persecution complex -- when we meet him, he's berating his agent after searching for the letter 'k' in the script he received, dividing it by three, and shouting that "KKK" appears exactly 486 times in the pages -- and then as the paranoid mess comforted by Scientology knockoff MindHead.
The flip side of Murphy's performance is that of Jiff, Kit's brother and a dead ringer for the mega star. Where Kit is handsome and beloved by all, Jiff works oddjobs, can't see at all without his dorky glasses and appears to have sported braces since his baby teeth fell out. A completely one-dimensional character, Jiff nevertheless works because of how deeply Murphy commits to this weirdo. All Jiff wants to do is "real" work, so he agrees to be an assistant for Bowfinger to fetch coffee and the like, but naturally the producer exploits Jiff's resemblance to his brother and uses him as a body and stunt double. In the film's best comedic sequence, Bowfinger has Kiff run across an L.A. freeway as an action scene. Thanks to Frank Oz's skillful direction, which captures the cars only as blurs, I felt genuine terror watching Jiff try to make his way across eight lanes of traffic -- twice of course; you always need retakes -- even, as Martin points out, the cars are driven by professionals.
In some ways, Bowfinger is as revealing about the ins-and-outs of the industry as The Player: Martin's character believes he has a winner in Afrim's script simply because it ends with the catchphrase, "Gotcha, suckers," but Downey's executive gives Bowfinger his shot solely because he likes the phrase. In Ramsey's first rant, he rails against black people never getting any good catchphrases, as they go to Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or other white stars. Graham's character is a manipulative succubus who just might make it one day because of her shrewdness and certainly not her talent. But it's also a story of hope, one that vindicates these insane people through the sensation of making art (or whatever the hell it is you'd call Chubby Rain). These two aspects never fully gel for, as with all things to come from Steve Martin, you can never find solid ground because he never lets on what is sincere and what is simply an ironic ruse. Nevertheless, Bowfinger is a triumph, if not altogether great, about the joys of filmmaking, ultimately every bit as earnest as Tim Burton's Ed Wood and just as concerned with prying the beauty from B-movie absurdity. It's not the best Hollywood movie out there, but it's one of them, and it's lighthearted enough to be enjoyed on a rainy Sunday or a film class.