Bowfinger (1999)

D: Frank Oz
S: Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy

Steve Martin is a would-be producer who goes all out in one last attempt to make a major motion picture before he turns fifty. Armed with a schlock horror/sci-fi script written by his accountant, and a bemused conditional go-ahead from legit producer Robert Downey Jnr., he attempts to snare megastar Eddie Murphy, a paranoid, self-obsessed character who is also a member of a scientology-type organisation run by Terence Stamp. When Murphy refuses, Martin decides to make the movie anyway, filming scenes without the star's knowledge and employing a geeky lookalike (also Murphy) as a body double. High concept stuff with some moments of humour and injokey self-parody, amusing enough, with some priceless bits, but on the whole too dependent on its stars' charisma, which has, unfortunately, dimmed with time.

For director Frank Oz, the film is an improvement over the disastrous In & Out. Bowfinger is at least consistent in tone, and never pretends to become serious the way the Kevin Kline vehicle did. The pace is relatively fast and the jokes come steadily enough, but, like Oz' Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, never quite achieves the screwball farce texture it aspires to. There's something inauthentic and forced about too much of it. Martin is clearly trying too hard and seems to have lost the apparently effortless charm and humour he built his reputation upon. Murphy has fun in two roles, though he overplays the self-parodic one. The supporting cast is generally okay, though Heather Graham (Lost in Space, Boogie Nights, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) overdoes the wide-eyed vamp who sleeps her way to stardom.

There are some great gags in here, and plenty of little pokes at Hollywood moviemaking which makes it seem more canny than it is. Martin's dog has one of the best moments, a troupe of illegal Mexican emigrants have most of the rest. The funniest lines of dialogue and many of the major set piece gags were featured in the trailer, of course, which makes them less fresh and funny when you see them live. This is part of the problem, because without genuine comic momentum or characters who genuinely win your affection, the film has nothing to play with except its throwaway gags and bits of business.

Bowfinger is the kind of film I would have loved when I was fourteen, and if it catches you in the right frame of mind, it might provide an evening's harmless entertainment. It's far from the best work of its stars though, and fans, while they may get a kick out of seeing it, will probably find themselves looking back in affection at their earlier work, which they probably saw...oh, when they were fourteen...

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.