The Hollywood-endorsed skewering of Hollywood is a rare bird. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) stand out as two of the best that I can think of off the top of my head. Well, add Frank Oz’s Bowfinger to that list as well. Although perhaps not as scathing an indictment as either of the previous two, it does a fantastic job of satirizing both the well-to-do, successful side of the business, as well as the more desperate, down-on-their-luck Hollywood castoffs.
But more than anything else, it’s just a fun movie; a strange, silly, underappreciated piece that paired two comedy juggernauts who we now may lack faith in, but at the time they managed to play off of each other beautifully. For those who haven’t seen it, Bowfinger features Steve Martin as Bobby Bowfinger, a has-been movie director trying to make it big before he hits 50. In his corner, he’s got a preposterous science fiction screenplay written by his accountant (Adam Alexi-Malle), called Chubby Rain, Carol, a pretentious, never-was actress (Christine Baranski), and a parking attendant moonlighting as a cameraman (a surprisingly not-grating Jamie Kennedy), but no star and no crew. After a bumbling attempt to schmooze with one of Hollywood’s top producers, Jerry Renfro (a brief, understated turn by Robert Downey, Jr.), he is convinced that his only shot at success is to tap Hollywood’s current action megastar, Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy).
Of course, Ramsey has no interest in Bowfinger’s film — partly because he’s a nobody, and partly because Ramsey is, well, insane. He’s constantly plagued by fits of paranoia and delusions of all kinds, as well as an uncontrollable predilection towards exposing himself. For counseling, he sees (for an exorbitant membership fee) Terry Stricter, the scheming, faux-serene head honcho of a whackadoo sect called Mind Head. One of Bowfinger’s bolder moves was using Mind Head to take a direct shot at Scientology, which is one more reason to love it. So Bowfinger hatches a plan to film Ramsey surreptitiously, simply throwing his actors at him in real-life situations, and editing it down to make it look like he’s actually acting (to defend his idea, he blithely asks, “Did you know that Tom Cruise didn’t know he was in that vampire movie until three months later?” — another not-quite-gentle jab at Scientology, I suspect). Of course, since Ramsey is already a paranoid lunatic, people coming at him gibbering about aliens and sex make him all the crazier, and thusly the ride takes off. Throw in Heather Graham as Daisy, the sweetly conniving farmgirl-turned-aspiring starlet, and Eddie Murphy also playing Jiff, a dunderhead Kit Ramsey lookalike, and it makes for a clever, sharp-witted farce that manages to subtly and not-so-subtly take shots at a number of Hollywood tropes, but remain, at its heart, a charmer of a movie.
Three things that make Bowfinger so tremendously enjoyable:
1) The leads. If you told me today that a movie starring Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin was coming out, my eyes would roll back in my head, my gorge would rise violently, and I’d probably bite your face just for mentioning it. And at the time, neither was exactly at the top of his game — Martin was fresh off of the The Out-of-Towners, a picture with a tremendous ensemble cast that was a startling, breathtaking failure, and about to head into even murkier waters like Bringing Down The House. Murphy actually filmed Bowfinger in the six weeks he had free between the wretched Life and another (far worse) turn in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (I’m one of the few defenders of the first Nutty Professor. The second was a war crime). So for the two of them to come together and actually create something worthwhile is, in and of itself, something of a triumph. Yet there it is. Martin plays Bowfinger as a desperate yet resigned schemer, willing to beg, borrow and steal to achieve his manic goals. He’s near-remorseless in his plotting, but still somehow manages to come off as sympathetic, a testament to both the character and the performance. He’s prone to extended, self-absorbed monologues that awe his cast of doofuses —
“See that FedEx truck? Every day it delivers important papers to people all over the world. And one day, it is going to stop here, and a man is going to walk up and casually toss a couple of FedExes on my desk. And at that moment, we — and by we, I mean me — will be important.”
— but still manage to make the character affable and sympathetic.
Murphy, on the other hand, is two radically different types of crazy. As Kit, he’s a manic, nearly unhinged diva who constantly accuses his agent of racism, and is impatiently waiting for the picture that will give him his “Hasta la vista” moment and catapult him to the same heights as Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Yet, he laments “the white man gets all the best catchphrases!” He plays Ramsey with an awareness and wickedly self-referential bent that makes it verge on genius, firing barbs at both the industry and himself with equal vigor. One can’t help but wonder if Downey and Stiller were channeling him in Tropic Thunder, when you watch him, wild-eyed and furious, deliver lines like this:
“White boys always get the Oscar. It’s a known fact. Did I ever get a nomination? No! You know why? ‘Cause I hadn’t played any of them slave roles, get my ass whipped. That’s how you get the nomination. A black dude who plays a slave that gets his ass whipped gets the nomination, a white guy who plays an idiot gets the Oscar. That’s what I need — I need to play a retarded slave, then I’ll get the Oscar.”
His portrayal of Jiff, however, is even stranger. Jiff, a village idiot who wants nothing more than to run errands and be liked, is a sweet-natured moron. It’s the diametric opposite of Ramsey, and Murphy carries it off perfectly (and, it’s worth noting, with none of the effects/makeup laden gimmicks that have plagued virtually all of his films since where he portrayed more than one iteration of himself).
2) The writing. If there’s one thing Steve Martin can do, it’s write. His insight into the Hollywood process, the scratch-and-hardscrabble life of the wannabe players as well as the large-living, spoiled-by-success excesses. It’s a direct shot at both groups, yet as already mentioned, Bowfinger does so with such subtle charm and hilarity that it never really comes off as a particularly cruel skewering. Yet it succeeds in shooting with both barrels at Scientology, black actors, white producers (and race relations in Hollywood in general), casting couches, the insulting inanity of blockbuster action movies (at one point, Kit derisively snorts, “It’s too cerebral! We’re trying to make a movie here, not a film!”), all in one splendid, snickering gut-punch of a movie. Martin excels at subtle touches (as anyone who’s read Shopgirl can testify), but also can be relentless with the subversively clever, yet seemingly imbecilic humor (see also: The Three Amigos, The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains).
3) The little things. Bowfinger is filled to overflowing with small flourishes that you probably won’t even catch on the first, second or third viewings, that make it even more fun. Like the fact that Kit Ramsey’s house is also Wayne Manor from the 1960’s “Batman” series. The aforementioned shots at Scientology are a scream — members wear foil pyramids on their heads, and their headquarters has a PA system that just repeats, “Welcome to Mind Head,” ad infinitum. It all makes for additional glimpses of the film’s canny, cagey brand of humor.
Of course, a movie that banked over $100 million that lampoons Hollywood is perhaps too meta to bear. Yet the truth that saves it is that, unlike the bulk of the barrage of swill the Hollywood repeatedly projectile vomits at us every year (some of them starring these same players, unfortunately), Bowfinger earned its money. It’s a slick, savvy, hysterically funny little film, full of smarmy self-awareness and razor-sharp satire. But best of all, it’s got heart — despite all the shots it takes, despite an ending that gets the greedy exactly what they wanted without consequence, despite all of that, it still manages to charm the pants off of its viewers. Perhaps that feat is the most subversively brilliant con of them all.