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A con to be proud of

By Roy Rodenstein

Staff Writer

Directed by Frank Oz

Written by Steve Martin

With Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Heather Graham, Christine Baranski, Jamie Kennedy, Adam Alexi-Malle, Robert Downey Jr.

If you were a down-and-out director, would you try Bowfinger’s plan? With a killer script in hand, but short on cash and shorter still on clout, producer Bobby Bowfinger decides to put a top star in his film anyway. How does he manage? Simple: he doesn’t tell the star he’s being filmed. Instead, Bowfinger sends his actors out to interact with bankable box-office draw Kit Ramsey in a series of filmed encounters. It sounds like a wild way to make a movie, and in the case of Bowfinger it makes for a wildly entertaining ride.

Bowfinger (Steve Martin) depends on several people to pull off his genial plan. Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), previously a clerical worker, is responsible for the script for Chubby Rain, a frantic tale of alien infiltrators hiding in rain droplets. Daisy (Heather Graham), who asks “Where do I go to be an actress?” upon stepping off the bus from small-town America, plays the good girl who wants to save Kit (Eddie Murphy) from the aliens. Last, but not least, is Betsy, Bowfinger’s dog, who is instrumental in filming a spooky scene in a parking garage.

As far-fetched as this scheme for filming on the sly is, seasoned director Frank Oz works it into a believable and very funny comedy. The notion of Kit not knowing that the seemingly-crazy people who keep coming up to him are part of an elaborate con is used effectively. In grandly mocking fashion, the film shows Kit attending anxiety-control sessions at MindHead institution, where he is told to repeat mantras such as “There are no aliens” and “Keep it together” (the latter makes great fodder for Murphy’s nimble vocalizing talents). Naturally, when strangers accost him with talk of aliens Kit gets jumpy.

Bowfinger is not content with mere comedy, however. As in the case of MindHead, diatribes about Hollywood abound. Daisy’s mock speech laying out her conditions for nudity on film (“Only if it’s for art, and only if it’s necessary, and...”) is priceless, while pretentious acting techniques, Hollywood views of audience intelligence, celebrity worshipping, the race-based glass ceiling in Hollywood, and treatment of illegal immigrants are also skewered. The hard-hitting sarcasm is funny enough to fit right in with the movie’s droll tone.

While the direction is typical Frank Oz, with bright, clean shots, the movie also makes good use of slow motion and close-ups of Martin’s cartoony expressions. The writing does fall flat on occasion, however, and the final scene is amusing but out of place, making Bowfinger less consistently successful than Martin’s 1991 film L.A. Story. Interestingly, one particular joke delivered by Murphy previously appeared in his movie Boomerang.

Murphy’s acting here is superb. While his Kit is typical all-cylinders Eddie Murphy, he really shines in a second role as Kit’s look-alike Jiff. Graham, who was sometimes glaringly out of place in the recent Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, is as effective as Daisy, although the script at one point gives her a contrived change in personality. Meanwhile, Martin turns in his usual touching and effervescent performance as Bobby Bowfinger, and Betsy has the funniest scene for a dog in a long time.

For variety, the script throws in jokes about Interview with the Vampire, kinky celebrities, and, courtesy of a brief appearance by Robert Downey Jr., divorce settlements. Schwarzenegger doesn’t escape the fun, either, with a rapid-fire scene in which Kit Ramsey complains that Arnold gets all the good lines while his own scripts are too cerebral. “We’re trying to make a movie here, not a film!” he complains. With a steady stream of punch lines, sight gags and cultural commentary, Bowfinger works nicely as both.