Right on Target

Funny farce 'Bowfinger' skewers Hollywood with perfectly played satire

August 13, 1999|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

Like the perfect mate or the ultimate Western omelet, great satire on film is next to impossible to find, usually because filmmakers are afraid to crack a few eggs and to have faith in their audience.

If all-out satire is to work on the big screen, the director, the screenwriter and the cast have to be willing to play each situation out to its illogical extreme without fear of appearing too foolish.

Likewise, all involved in the farce have to trust that the audience is smart enough to get what's going on and buy into it without hesitation.

Thankfully, Steve Martin is a trusting soul who doesn't mind making a little mess. As a result, his "Bowfinger" is as close to a perfect piece of satire as filmgoers have seen in quite some time.

"Bowfinger" is a brilliant romp through the low end of the Hollywood film industry that triumphs on every level, thanks to performers who get the joke and take it for a long, hilarious ride.

Director Frank Oz, known as the voice of Miss Piggy, is turning out to be as gifted behind a camera as he is with his hands inside a Muppet. But Martin, as the writer and title character, is the life force that powers "Bowfinger."

In recent years, Martin -- the comic who made his early fortune playing a banjo and telling jokes with a fake arrow through his head -- has made himself into quite the sophisticate, playing refined roles.

But as Bobby Bowfinger, a down-on-his luck producer-director who is desperate for that one big score, Martin winningly returns to the slapstick of "The Jerk" with a touch of "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" mixed in.

He is aided and abetted wonderfully by Eddie Murphy, in one of the best performances of his career. It's a dual role to boot, with Murphy as both macho action star Kit Ramsey and as Jiff, the naive stand-in who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ramsey.

In a certain sense, "Bowfinger" is the logical follow-up to Martin's 1980s classic "L.A. Story," which deftly skewered and celebrated the So. Cal. "culture." This time, however, Hollywood itself is the target, and it falls hard.

It seems that Bowfinger has stumbled onto the script for "Chubby Rain," a sci-fi action epic that can't miss. Trouble is, Robert Downey Jr., in a clever cameo as a screen executive, won't green-light the movie unless Ramsey comes on board.

So Bowfinger, walking the precarious line between fame and bankruptcy, sets out to stage the movie with Ramsey -- even if Ramsey doesn't know he's in the picture. And it's here where Murphy cleverly plays against his own resume, as the big-shot Hollywood star.

Ramsey is the poster child for paranoiacs everywhere -- he counts the number of times the letter K appears consecutively in a script as conclusive proof of Ku Klux Klan involvement. And when strangers start speaking gibberish to him about aliens, it sends Ramsey reeling, since he doesn't know he's the star of an alien movie.

Murphy is the perfect personification of every star's combination of ego and insecurity. He gets a snarky assist from Terence Stamp, as the leader of a sort of New Age group called "Mind-head," a wicked poke at Hollywood mysticism.

Murphy's second role, Jiff, also casts him against type, though not quite as smartly as Kit Ramsey, since we have seen him play the amiable dunce before. Still, Jiff's slow but sure awakening is satisfyingly delivered by Murphy, who clearly appears to be having fun.

Bowfinger's coterie of never-made-its is terrific. Led by Heather Graham as an Ohio farm girl whose dreams of stardom bounce her from bed to bed, and the exceptional Christine Baranski, the classically trained doyenne who can't figure out why Ramsey won't rehearse with her, Bowfinger's players are a stitch.

But, ultimately, what makes "Bowfinger" so pleasing is Martin's complete immersion in the role.

Sure, Martin has a personal connection to the material. After all, he wrote it. But Martin is willing to do anything to make Bobby Bowfinger believable and funny; not necessarily honest or even likable, but true to his nature and hilarious.

Just like his movie.

`Bowfinger'

Starring Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Heather Graham, Christine Baranski, Terence Stamp

Directed by Frank Oz

Released by Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment

Running time 97 minutes

Rated PG-13 (for language, sexual themes)

Sun score ***1/2

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