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The Total Filmmaker 

Steve Martin's beautiful losers

Wednesday, Aug 11 1999
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Photo by Zade Rosenthal
IN BOWFINGER, THE MOONSTRUCK NEW COMEDY ABOUT the movie business, even the losers are beautiful. "New" in this instance is used advisedly, even ironically, because the film, directed by Frank Oz and written by Steve Martin, who also stars, is nothing if not self-consciously, waggishly familiar: A handful of hapless nobodies join together in struggle to realize that most unnecessary of dreams -- a somewhat less than major motion picture. Working in the perpetual shadow of Hollywood, in the poverty row of make-believe where no deal is consummated, no spotlight shone, no star born, the group is led by the titular Bobby Bowfinger, a producer stuck in terminal development. Situated legions below Roger Corman on the power list, and just barely north of Ed Wood Jr., Bowfinger is everybody in Hollywood who's ever yearned for success and failed to find it, over and over again. His is the other, gently melancholic, sweet and sour L.A. story, without the Malibu sunsets and Beverly Hills lunches -- it's life played out like a no-budget movie.

Bowfinger lives in a dark, peeling bungalow on a dusty, anonymous street. Above the Selznick-style portico that hangs off the house like a barnacle reads the legend: Bowfinger International Pictures. (Pointedly, the Hollywood sign that loomed above Martin's house in his last valentine to this city, L.A. Story, is nowhere to be seen.) The producer seems to have produced before -- a framed poster for The Yugo Story looms indiscreetly on one wall -- but he's running out of time. (A "Learn How To Act" brochure with his photo and a promise of four lessons for $25, is stuck on a bulletin board.) He doesn't have a deal, but as the film opens he's reading a script with the impossible title of Chubby Rain, by an accountant turned screenwriter, Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle). Convinced that Afrim has contrived a science-fiction bonanza, Bowfinger gathers the faithful band of would-be movie folk who wistfully cling to him: a drama queen named Carol (Christine Baranski), a preening young stud called Slater (Kohl Sudduth) and a studio gofer cum aspiring cameraman, Dave (Jamie Kennedy). For his lead, Bowfinger decides to cast the world's biggest star, the trick being that the guy doesn't know he's been selected. All he needs to do, reasons Bowfinger, is to surreptitiously catch Kit Ramsey on the run; he won't even have to write him a check.

 

THIS IS ONE OF THE STORIES HOLLYWOOD BEST LOVES TO tell about itself -- the dream of its own creation. Most of these fantasies are deliriously self-serving, filled with mad men and women who, in the clinch, are invariably more committed to art and the audience than to self-interest. (Which is one reason no one has yet bankrolled a screen version of What Makes Sammy Run?) In this respect, Bowfinger follows the standard script: It's unabashedly sentimental about the people who make the movies, even Daisy (Heather Graham), the farm-fresh opportunist who steps off a Greyhound bus and starts sleeping her way up through the production's ranks. Intentionally or not, a shadow of feeling clouds over even a power producer played by Robert Downey Jr. The only character allowed no sympathy is Terry Stricter (Terence Stamp), the leader of an entertainment-world cult called MindHead, whose faithful wear pointy white hats (like the ones you fold out of newspaper) and whose sepulchral facilities reverberate with the greeting "Welcome to MindHead. Welcome to MindHead. Welcome to MindHead." Stricter is the personal guru to Bowfinger's inadvertent star, Kit Ramsey, played with dazzling levity by Eddie Murphy, giving the most liberated, joyfully self-effacing performance of his career.

"Keep It Together" is Kit's MindHead mnemonic, and part of the pleasure of the film is just how untogether he turns out to be. Shielded by money and flunkies, Kit is a paranoiac with a secret that keeps him in thrall, or maybe hostage, to MindHead. ("Happy Premise Number One: There are no aliens. Happy Premise Number Two: There is no giant foot trying to squash me.") He sees conspiracies everywhere: He counts the number of k's in an action-adventure script, then divides by three to prove the influence of the Ku Klux Klan. ("Get my door as fast as you get Tom Hanks'," he barks at one of his jumpy aides.) Murphy looks movie-star burnished as Kit, sleek as an otter and nattily dressed, which only amps the comedy when he also turns up as Jiff, a gibbering geek Bowfinger hires because of his resemblance to Ramsey. Squinting through heavy-framed glasses, his gums flashing wetly above his prosthetic silver braces, Murphy seems to inhabit a wholly different body when he becomes Jiff, but without the aid of the computer-generated effects that worked wonders in The Nutty Professor. It's a bravura double turn, confirming that while Jim Carrey remains the most ingenious comic in movies, Murphy is the most accomplished comic actor -- even here, his gifts seem barely tapped.

Martin, in contrast, gives a neatly tamped-down performance. Wisely opting not to compete with Murphy, who gives his scenes energy not always felt in Oz's direction, the writer leaves his showboating to his very funny script, whose gentle humor is distinctly out of sync with comedy's vogue for scatology. (The gags, as could be expected, careen from goofy to conceptual.) This is Martin's best work since L.A. Story, his ersatz Woody Allen romance from 1991. In that film, Martin played a TV weatherman who not only loves his city in all its ridiculousness, but loves it exactly because of its ridiculousness. It's a wispy, amiable entertainment, but as with Martin's earlier script for Roxanne, it betrays a sentimental streak as perilous as the San Andreas Fault. The best comedy tests the limits of sentimentalism and cynicism without succumbing to either. Martin has always been brilliant at walking that particular line, but as his work has grown more high-brow -- the heartfelt nods to Shakespeare, the madcap romps through museums -- he's gotten softer, going limp where he should get tough, especially when it comes to romance. The greeting-card finales of Roxanne and L.A. Story are strikingly devoid of irony.

It's too bad, because one of the things that's so great about Martin's absurdist persona is the gleam of menace (or maybe it's just intelligence) in his Everyman's rubber face. He's an immensely likable performer, but his eyes can go suddenly, even scarily, beady, which is why he was so effective in Pennies From Heaven and perhaps why Stanley Kubrick once thought of him for the lead of Eyes Wide Shut. Unlike a lot of comics, Martin doesn't seem to hate himself or the world, but neither is he particularly self-enamored. Unlike, say, Woody Allen or Albert Brooks, he has never seemed interested in plumbing the depths of his own menace, shedding light on the darkness -- he just sticks an arrow through his head, grows a banana nose or makes like the white Al Roker. Even when he dates a girl less than half his age, as he does in L.A. Story, he doesn't build an entire movie around his neurosis, he just shrugs his shoulders and gets on with it, with no apologies and no excuses.

That's why he's so perfectly placed here. Bowfinger loves his cast and crew, and at one point even grandly claims to have a conscience, but his self-interest is always stronger than any of his altruistic urges, which of course makes him an ideal director. The only sentimental thing about him is his knee-jerk cynicism. In this inventive inversion of Allen's Zelig, in which a nobody insinuates himself into history, a star is appropriated by a group of innocents whose intentions are blissfully pure. Bowfinger, a terrifically clever film, has a soft-boiled heart, but it also turns on a smart metaphor for the ways in which the unfamous sometimes lay claim to the famous. Bowfinger doesn't feel all that bad about invading Kit's life, because he already feels as if part of Kit belongs to him. If Martin doesn't see anything wrong or terribly ominous about that, it's because in his Hollywood, siphoning off fame is just another way of saying I love you.

BOWFINGER | Directed by FRANK OZ | Written by STEVE MARTIN

Produced by BRIAN GRAZER | Released by Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment | Citywide

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