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BOWFINGER

by: Michael Dequina

Universal's ad campaign for Bowfinger would lead one to believe that the film rides solely on one (admittedly inspired) gimmick: Unable to land action superstar Kit Ramsey to headline his no-budget extravaganza, aspiring movie producer-director Bobby Bowfinger instead casts a geeky lookalike. However, that's only a small fraction of what's on writer-star Steve Martin's savvy satirical mind, which takes stinging potshots on a wide variety of targets under the Hollywood sun in one efficiently funny package.

It takes a while for Bobby (Martin) to get so desperate as to hire a dead ringer for Kit (Eddie Murphy), but his initial scheme is just as, if not more, pathetic. Knowing that the key to making his sci-fi cheapie Chubby Rain a success would be the involvement of the elusive and self-centered Kit, he shoots his unwitting "star" in secret, assembling a performance out of footage shot while he is in public places (such as restaurants and parking sructures) and reacting to his "co-stars," who approach him out of the blue. The reaction usually elicited is one of confusion and fear--which, as it happens, are the primary emotions of his "character," who is supposed to be witness to an alien invasion.

While the shooting-on-the-sly premise is funny--particularly Murphy's work as the oblivious and bewildered Kit--Bowfinger really takes off with the introduction of the softspoken Jiff (also played by Murphy), who is hired as a Kit substitute when the real deal goes on a retreat to replenish his rapidly diminishing sanity. Much like how the film is given new life, Murphy is similarly energized in the character of Jiff. He has always been at his best when he tosses his vanity aside and disappears completely into a role, as he did so memorably in The Nutty Professor, and he similarly wrings laughs and elicits a fair amount of sympathy as the good-natured, if slow of mind, Jiff.

Low-budget guerilla filmmaking and egotistical stars are Martin and director Frank Oz's main targets in the film, but they nimbly use their supporting players to attack other Tinseltown staples. Daisy (Heather Graham) is both the wide-eyed innocent who thinks a bus ticket from Ohio is also an instant one to stardom as well as the predatory young actress on the make. On the other end of the spectrum is Carol (Christine Baranski), an aging stage diva who itches for a taste of recaptured glory. Jerry Renfro (Robert Downey Jr.) is your typically greasy studio exec, and Chubby Rain's script happens to be written not by a career screenwriter but an accountant (Adam Alexi-Malle) with big-time Hollywood aspirations. There's also a thinly-veiled knock on Scientology. With such a wide range of targets, Martin and Oz give all their peripheral players their moments to shine, with the one notable exception being Jamie Kennedy, whose natural live-wire instincts (see the Scream films) are unfortunately held in check in the limited background role of Dave, the studio gofer who "borrows" the equipment to film Mr. Bowfinger's opus.

Bowfinger does take its time to build a head of steam, but in an age where movies often begin well before precipitously falling apart, the fact that it is a film that actually gets better as it goes along makes it something of a rarity. Also rare is the enjoyment in finding a seemingly no-brainer comedy that reveals itself to not only have a brain, but a sharp one at that.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)

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