Bowfinger (1999), Lookback/Review

Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr. taking pot shots at Scientology. Bowfinger is even better than this is making it sound.

I am one of those critics who really loves to watch movies about making movies. There is something about seeing the inner workings of what leads up to the final product that we all talk and write about for years to come that is especially entertaining to me. Immediately movies like Get Shorty and David Mamet’s State and Main come to mind as features that hit the nail as perfectly on the head as you can. As an audience we tend to collectively forget about the amount of work that goes into every movie that graces the silver screen or the silver disc of the home video market. We also tend to overlook how awful some of those movies turn out. Still, every bad movie is an expression of artistic creativity by a roomful of dreamers who have a story to tell. Never is this more evident than in an overlooked gem from director Frank Oz, his hysterical 1999 comedy Bowfinger. Written by and starring comedy legend Steve Martin, Bowfinger does what so few comedies are able to do in the post-Millennium era by making fun of itself while not falling into self-parody.

Down on his luck filmmaker Bobby Bowfinger (Martin) is feeling his age and realizes he does not have much time left to make his cinematic masterpiece. Never one to judge where talent will be found, he reads and loves accountant Afrim’s (Adam Alexi-Malle) screenplay and wants to make the story his Citizen Kane. The script entitled Chubby Rain is an alien-invasion movie that the auteur thinks will lead him on his path to becoming a household name. Eddie Murphy co-stars as Kit Ramsey, the world’s biggest action star who Bowfinger is desperate to attach as the lead for his alien opus. Kit is the classic Hollywood prima donna; tough on the outside but unable even to shop for himself. He is a pampered and insecure star with a boatload of issues ranging from his paranoia centered on racist Hollywood plots to why there are too many “K’s” in his scripts that are divisible by 3 (KKK-get it?). Kit’s rant to his agent on why white actors win the Oscar is one of Murphy’s best scenes . . .  ever. Watching it again for the first time in over a decade had me wishing this movie did not premiere in such a crowded summer of movies, which kept it from becoming cemented in an enduring spot in our memories.

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Eddie is at his manic best spoofing himself with dizzied wonder. What is so terrific is that this is the Eddie Murphy we have missed for so long and unfortunately have not seen since. Kit Ramsey is the kind of star that, at first glance, is what we want in our action heroes.But peel a layer away and he is a hyper and delusional obsessive who thinks that he is involved in some type of other-world alien conspiracy in Los Angeles. To aid him in this affliction Kit seeks the guidance of MindHead where he has beem a long time member. He requires constant counsel from Terry Stricter (Terrence Stamp hysterically playing against type), the ominous head of the exclusive organization. It is obvious that Martin is taking a square shot at Scientology and has a blast doing it. MindHead is a direct send-up of the bizarre religion and the hold that it has on the Hollywood elite. Terry and his staff have trained Kit to use the mantra “Keep It Together, K-I-T” when he has his episodes and Murphy makes it sing every time he repeats it.

Without clout or resources, Bowfinger is prepared to set a long con in motion to make the picture he is determined to produce. The veteran Hollywood hustler has a stable of regulars around LA who, like him, still believe in the magic of movies. Showing up at a primo Beverly Hills hotspot with a car phone he tore out of a car to his ear, Martin is pure comedy magic as he revels in his own LA bullshit. After asking the Maitre’d to sit him next to uber-producer Jerry Renfro (a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr.), Bowfinger begins his play with an hysterical phone improvisation and begins to schmooze the power broker. On a lark, Renfro tells the desperate director that if he can land Kit Ramsey as the lead then he has a “go picture.” With a stalwart group of actors in place and committed to his cause, Bowfinger is ready to shoot his masterpiece. Since securing Kit for such an asinine movie is impossible, Bowfinger explains to his cast that the mega-star will not actually know that he is being filmed so as to make for better reactions in the scenes. This is an extra clever plot device in Martin’s script as this tactic only feeds Kit’s growing paranoia that he will be a victim of alien abduction. The idea is especially prescient for 1999 before the TMZ world we live in now and all of the “found footage” films being released.  After getting about halfway through with the film Kit has a breakdown and is admitted to MindHead’s celebrity wellness center. With time running out, Bowfinger casts doppelganger Jefferson “Jiff” Ramsey, a super nerdy version of his famous but deluded brother Kit. Adding to the ensemble is stage vet Christine Baranski as an over the hill actress taking her last shot at immortality.  And what would a big Hollywood picture be without a hot young ingénue who comes in the form of Heather Graham playing the fresh off the bus actress from Ohio who has big dreams and literally sleeps her way to the top by the time the credits roll. As for a film crew, Bowfinger hires Mexican border jumpers that he squeezes into his van—classic. Murphy is incomparable as Jiff, the dumb but lovable brother of the world’s biggest movie star. In one wild scene, Jiff is directed to run across an LA Freeway as Bowfinger assures him that all of the cars passing by at ridiculously high speeds are stunt-people with the production. It is just absurd, but Oz makes it work so well that I actually scanned back to watch this part a few times because it is that damn funny.

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Produced by Brian Grazer and he and Ron Howard’s company Imagine Entertainment, Bowfinger had a decent bow at the box office in the same summer that the first Star Wars prequel was released. Bowfinger shuffled out of theaters as a respectable hit but was lost in sea of tentpole pictures and overhyped sequels. While there was no sequel to the movie that is just fine because, in my opinion, the best comedies never have sequels and stand on their own merit; being a one-time thing. There was never a need for My Blue Heaven 2 or Trading Places 2; the originals are modern day classics that neither warrant nor need a sequel. Remember the awful Blues Brothers 2000?? The reason why Bowfinger still works so well all of these years later is simply that the comedy never tries to be something it is not. It is unapologetic in the shallowness of its characters, but they are still people you want to invest in. Frank Oz does not waste a frame and is clearly in his sandbox directing this terrific LA-centric romp.

Simply stated, when you get comedy right you walk away and leave the audience on a high note wanting more. Bowfinger makes you realize what happens when you get comic legends together to take a damn funny look at just how phony the movie business really is. But would we have it any other way?