Murphy Shines, Martin Bores in Bowfinger
Steve Martin rose to prominence making balloon animals, sticking hoop arrows “through” his head, and generally carrying on like a nut in such early films as The Jerk. But Martin has long since gone uptown, regularly publishing short, humorous pieces in The New Yorker and seeing his heady play Picasso at the Lapin Agile receive repeated productions since its 1993 debut. But America—behemoth moviegoing America, that is—doesn’t pay the big money to Steve Martin for whimsy or theoretical café conversations between Picasso and Einstein. No, America wants the “wild and crazy guy.” And it’s increasingly obvious that Steve Martin, as a performer, can’t or won’t deliver that anymore.
Throughout Bowfinger, a tale of bottom-feeding dreamers on the fringe of the movie business in L.A., Martin plays the title role of con man/tyro movie director Bobby Bowfinger as if it were somehow beneath his dignity. It’s the same problem that afflicted the white-haired comic a few years back in the dreadful big-screen version of Sgt. Bilko. His performance here shows none of the energy, manic confidence, and sheer thirst for the big score that drives a con man. He’s too restrained, too polite, too goddamned genteel to ever fool anyone into buying his dreams.
Which is regrettable, because it means Steve Martin the actor has let down Steve Martin the screenwriter—Bowfinger is his creation. In the hands of director Frank Oz, who shows the same flair for thoughtful zaniness here that marked his previous effort, In & Out, Bowfinger comes in at a fast-paced, good-hearted 90 minutes, its various absurd plot twists barreling along quite neatly. And its dual roles for Eddie Murphy prove once again what an incredibly skilled actor lies hidden in a performer who has made a succession of really pointless movies in the past few years. (Go ahead and argue that The Nutty Professor and Doctor Doolittle weren’t a waste of a great talent—I dare you.)
As Kit Ramsey, Murphy portrays the world’s greatest action-movie hero, who’s secretly afflicted with all sorts of paranoid fantasies that have caused him to fall prey to a cult called MindHeal, run by the ominous Terry Stricter (a superbly chilly Terence Stamp). As a member of MindHeal—an obvious slap by Martin at Scientology—Ramsey has slowly gotten his obsessions under control, but he remains angry about how the movie business treats him, saying the only way he’ll ever get an Oscar is if he plays “a retarded slave.”
Ramsey, with his anger and barely controlled fears, is the perfect target for Bowfinger, a failed actor who runs Bowfinger International Pictures out of a tiny, crumbling stucco house in West Hollywood. Convinced Chubby Rain, an aliens-come-to-earth script penned by an accountant (Adam Alexi-Malle), is his ticket to the big time, Bowfinger tries to snag Kit Ramsey for the lead, only to be summarily dismissed by the volatile star. So, Bowfinger reasons, he’ll do guerrilla filmmaking, tracking Ramsey’s movements and having his actors “ambush” him, speak their lines, and shoot the star’s reactions—without revealing to the rest of the cast that Ramsay doesn’t know he’s in the film. Given Kit’s perilous mental state, the results are predictably amusing, thanks to the work of Christine Baranski, Heather Graham, and Kohl Sudduth as Bowfinger’s troupe. But when the terrified Ramsey goes to ground, forcing Bowfinger to seek a double, the film moves to another level.
In the role of Jiff, Ramsey’s double (and more than that), Murphy creates a touching portrait of a sweetly sensitive nerd who shyly sums up his success in life: “Running errands would be a big step up for me.” With his pinched, mumbly, utterly geeky voice, hunched shoulders, and sheer joy at finding himself accepted by a group, Jiff could easily have been a pathetic loser, but Murphy creates a character of such transcendent naivete that he becomes heroic. Asked to sprint across an ultra-busy freeway, Jiff surveys the traffic, gulps, and says, “Gee . . . won’t that be kind of dangerous?” But then he does it anyway.
Jiff’s trusting sweetness is meant to provide the turning point for Bowfinger, as the title character meets someone even he can’t bring himself to con. But this plot point only amplifies Martin’s weakness in the role. Perhaps the fundamental difficulty is that Martin has been a show business success for so long (he won an Emmy as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the 1960s, when he was in his early 20s) that he really can’t bring Bobby Bowfinger’s core motivation—his hunger for wealth, fame, and power in the movie business—to compelling life. Maybe it’s simply too hard for Martin to pretend to crave something he’s already possessed in full measure for more than two decades.