Steve Martin has to eat, so every couple of years he lends his face (and not much else) to a Sgt. Bilko or an Out-of-Towners. Those aren’t real Steve Martin films; the genuine articles are the ones he writes himself. Martin had a hand in writing some of his earlier comedies, but it wasn’t until Roxanne in 1987 that he sat down and hammered out a script on his own; the result was a graceful promotion, a step up from slapstick to more subtle and character-driven comedy. (In essence, as a writer-actor, Martin is like Albert Brooks without the self-loathing.) His subsequent scripts, most notably L.A. Story, have been fine enough to make many of us wish Martin would type “Fade in” and “Fade out” more often.

Bowfinger, which Martin wrote, finds him in ideal circumstances. He’s working with Frank Oz (Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), the only director aside from Carl Reiner who really knows what to do with Martin. He’s surrounded by a dependable comic ensemble of familiar and unfamiliar faces. He’s tackling the subject of moviemaking, always fertile soil for farce. And he’s working with Eddie Murphy (in not one but two roles), a historic pairing that’s all the more satisfying for being in a good movie. (Sgt. Bilko united Martin and Dan Aykroyd for the first time on the big screen, but blew it.)

Except for a few frantic moments, the character Martin has written for himself — Bobby Bowfinger, ambitious and luckless movie producer — is almost a straight man. Bowfinger has gotten his hands on an action script — Chubby Rain, a nonsensical alien-attack thing that he thinks is perfect for Hollywood’s reigning star, Kit Ramsey (Murphy). Problem is, a star of Kit’s magnitude wouldn’t piss on Bowfinger if he were on fire. So Bowfinger devises a sneak-attack strategy — guerrilla filmmaking as a covert operation. He’ll shoot the movie around Kit, catching footage of a baffled Kit interacting with the movie’s cast, and use a dorky lookalike — Jiff, also played by Murphy — as a stand-in.

Martin and Aykroyd looked ill at ease together in Sgt. Bilko. Trapped inside the idiot plot, they knew they were better than the material. By contrast, Martin and Murphy seem absolutely natural together. Mostly, the team-up is Bowfinger and Jiff (the producer has limited access to Kit), and Jiff brings out a weird gentleness in both Murphy and Martin. Bowfinger doesn’t have tons of big laughs (though it does offer a few); it has a lot of soft, affectionate laughs rooted in the way the characters interact. Heather Graham, for instance, drops into the movie as an eager ingenue who’s more than meets the eye, and Martin and the other actors work with her so comfortably that she gives perhaps the first good performance I’ve seen from her.

Bowfinger isn’t really about making movies. It’s about being in the movie business — finding a home there. Bowfinger doesn’t want to make movies; he wants to have made them, and he wants the status of getting big stars to be in his movies. For Martin, Bowfinger is the essence of Hollywood, which cares more about making deals than making movies. A low-budget outsider like Bowfinger should be concentrating on pulling together small projects within his means; instead, he’s shooting for an alien epic starring the world’s biggest action hero, on the kingly budget of $2,184. Bowfinger is a showcase for wit, and it’s a testament to Martin’s literary skills that he’s incapable of writing a bad script, even on purpose: Even the forlorn Chubby Rain, with its surreal scenes of cops melting and high-heeled women intoning “You prefer alien love!”, looks more interesting than most of the Kit Ramsey-type stuff we get every summer.

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