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Steve Martin's "Bowfinger" immortalizes the Hollywood bottom-feeder.

By Coury Turczyn

AUGUST 30, 1999:  There is a certain stratum of would-be filmmakers and actors in Hollywood that you don't often hear about. While stories of the early struggles of celebrities are recounted like folk tales (which is all VH-1 airs anymore), the tales of wannabes who never actually made it almost never get mentioned. But there they are in Los Angeles by the thousands, taking out their sad little ads in Daily Variety ("Guaranteed hit screenplay for sale!"), auditioning for straight-to-video dreck, and getting bit parts in commercials...if they're lucky. Worse, there are about four or five strata of bottom-feeders below even them.

These people aren't necessarily stupid, just undertalented dreamers. This is America, after all, and you're expected to pursue your aspirations here—not doing so is worse than failure. So they toil away, telling themselves that today might be the day—the phone will ring, the letter will come, or they'll suddenly be stopped on the street by a director who's looking for someone just like them. And who knows? It just might happen. How else do you explain the career of Pauly Shore? (Well, there's always nepotism...if you're in the right place at the right time.)

Steve Martin's Bowfinger (he wrote the script while Frank Oz directed) is an affectionate send-up of this world of sweet losers, and it's the funniest movie he's made in years. Back in his hometown setting of L.A., he is free again to explore the subjects he knows so well (as in L.A. Story)—the artificial passions of "The Biz," and the strange City of Angels that personifies them. This is no scathing satire, but rather a gentle comedy of a sort that's increasingly difficult to find these days.

Martin stars as Bobby Bowfinger, a D-grade producer-director who feels the march of time on his shoulders—hitting 50 and still a failure, he decides he must make one last, desperate grab for the big brass ring. Seizing upon his accountant's epic sci-fi script, Chubby Rain—about aliens who invade the Earth via rain drops—he recklessly goes for broke and snares top action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) for the lead. But Ramsey doesn't actually know he's starring in the movie—Bowfinger films him guerrilla-style, on streets and in his car...and in the process sends the already jittery egomaniac into a nervous breakdown.

The revelation here is Eddie Murphy acting. There's a reason why he became a comedy superstar, though we rarely see much evidence of it in his movies (Metro? Vampire in Brooklyn?). If it weren't for his performances in The Nutty Professor, he'd be just another overpaid celebrity who doesn't earn his lunch; as it is, he's now an overpaid celebrity who earns his lunch some of the time. But in Bowfinger he does a brilliant job. As Kit Ramsey, he skewers his own image as a paranoid superstar who sees white conspiracies everywhere—and worse, he becomes convinced that aliens are after him, too. Then, in a dual role worthy of Peter Sellers, he transforms himself into the nerdy Jiff, hired by Bowfinger to imitate Ramsey. With a minimum of makeup, Murphy remakes himself into the physical opposite of the studly Ramsey; at times you might even forget it's Murphy. More impressive, he can be utterly hilarious through his facial expressions alone—enough to make you wish he'd act in more movies with director Oz.

Martin is at his charming best, once again playing a jerk you can feel for. His Bowfinger is a conman, to be sure, but he's a shyster who's passionate about his work, however misguided those passions might be. He will stop at nothing to fulfill his "vision," and aren't we taught to respect that force of will?

Even more entertaining is Martin's knowing touches via the story's Hollywood characters: the sweet young actress fresh off the bus from Ohio (Heather Graham), who proceeds to sleep her way to the top of the minuscule Bowfinger organization; the humble accountant (Adam Alexi-Malle) who suddenly casts off his job for the glamour of Hollywood once Bowfinger declares his script a masterwork; the production assistant who wields the real power in facilitating Bowfinger's film needs; and the aging diva (Christine Baranski) who was never really a diva in the first place. As kind of a side attraction, Martin also prods the ridiculousness of the Scientology "religion" with his own "MindHead," a suspect organization led by creepy L. Ron Hubbard-like Terry Stricter (Terence Stamp), who holds Ramsey in his thrall.

Although Bowfinger sometimes dips a little too far into the realm of "zany antics," Martin and Oz manage to keep a steady tone of believability throughout—yes, there are people this desperate in Hollywood. And this one's for them.


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