Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Birdman, as well as David Cronenberg’s upcoming Maps To The Stars, has us thinking back on other showbiz satires.
Steve Martin delivered a whimsical valentine to Los Angeles in L.A. Story. Eight years later, he offered another Hollywood-centric screenplay infused with less romanticism and more desperation. Bowfinger isn’t exactly dark—it’s a sun-kissed Frank Oz comedy—but it nonetheless lives in one of the film industry’s sadder corners. Martin plays the title character, a small-time producer who might be happy to be described as washed up; it would imply his career had ever begun in the first place. Armed with a sci-fi action script called Chubby Rain (penned by his accountant and “part-time receptionist”), Bowfinger decides he needs to make this his magnum opus, and, as such, requires the biggest star in Hollywood, Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). When Ramsey understandably rebuffs him, the production proceeds anyway, shooting around its unwitting star.
Murphy is no stranger to Hollywood insulation; for much of his film career, he has seemed hell-bent on avoiding talented filmmakers or, at his worst, sometimes even funny co-stars. He submits to both in Bowfinger, and gives two of his all-time best performances. As Kit, he accelerates his fast-talk shtick with jittery paranoia, brought on by both the film crew’s secret harassment (speaking a “secret white language [he] can’t decode!”) and his involvement with MindHead, Martin’s hilarious dig at Scientology. As Kit’s nerdy brother Jiff, hired for close-ups and occasional nudity, Murphy slows way down to an uncertain, nasal delivery, differentiating the two characters almost entirely by voice and body language, rather than his usual prosthetics. Both of his performances lack movie-star vanity—a concept he clearly understands, judging from his characterization of Kit.
There’s a lot that’s old-fashioned about Bowfinger; it includes corny song choices on the soundtrack, a kung-fu spoof that wasn’t particularly fresh even in 1999, and several wacky bits with a dog. But while the film’s premise remains farcical, the sheer number of major movie stars who have turned up in direct-to-DVD schlock over the past decade makes the ridiculous scheme weirdly believable, too. Justifying his plan, Bowfinger asks his associate: “Did you know Tom Cruise had no idea he was in that vampire movie until two years later?” It’s a classic Martin line: absurd yet rooted in an understanding of human ego.
Despite the cracks at Hollywood insiders and outsiders (another Bowfinger assertion: Boiled down, every movie production costs a little over $2,000), Martin, Murphy, and Oz don’t paint a sour picture of the industry. The film’s band of misfit filmmakers has a sweet faith in their lackluster abilities not unlike the crew from Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, and that crackpot optimism reflects onto Bowfinger itself. Material like its creaky kung-fu parody works because of the sheer joy emanating from both Murphy and Martin. In a silly and satirical way, Oz and his stars made a feel-good movie.
Availability: Bowfinger is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix or your local video store/library.