He may have been born in Waco, Tex., and he may relish the Eastern Establishment cachet of a New Yorker byline, but Steve Martin is a comic artist most at home in the 310 area code. Los Angeles — the city, the myth, the punchline, and the nurturer of people who think big even when thinking shallow — is Martin’s most liberating source of inspiration. And all of his best post-wild-and-crazy-guy movie work, as actor and as screenwriter, has been in the service of stories that, regardless of geography, reflect the stubborn mixture of melancholy and hope (”A Simple Twist of Faith”), jerkdom and poetry (”Roxanne”), sham and vision (”Leap of Faith”), conning and dreaming (”The Spanish Prisoner”) with which Angelenos lead their weather-enhanced lives.
Bowfinger lets the sun beat down brilliantly on a tapped-out, chewed-up schlemiel of a producer-director, Bobby Bowfinger, as he hustles one last, big project that he bets will make him rich — or else he’ll fail for good. Bobby has been handed an awful script he believes in, called ”Chubby Rain,” about aliens who infiltrate Earth hidden in raindrops.
Bobby Bowfinger is a loser; he’s also a genius. A nonplussed studio biggie (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees to greenlight the project contingent on Bowfinger’s smoke-blowing promise to sign up Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy), a superhot action star who worships a crackpot New Age guru (Terence Stamp). Well, Bowfinger can’t deliver, but so what? He shoots ”Chubby Rain” guerrilla-style, snaring Ramsay without the celeb ever knowing the camera’s rolling. (Acting, Martin suggests, isn’t the point; stardom is.)
Martin’s disciplined script — bitingly funny but tolerant, bemused rather than bitter — and the unfogged high beams he turns on everything from Scientology-like, fame-friendly creeds to the guileless guile of ambitious starlets is dramatically energized by two essential participants. Frank Oz, who, for my money, has become the preeminent director of perfect mainstream American comedies (from Martin’s own ”Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” to ”What About Bob?” and ”In & Out”), is one. Oz’s L.A. is a place of real people, not cartoons, and he gives generous, literal visual depth to Martin’s words.
The other key ingredient, of course, is Eddie Murphy. The great Eddie Murphy, whose outstanding comic talent requires more prudent guidance than he’s sometimes given, or maybe takes. Whichever guru linked Murphy to Martin and Oz, then, is to be high-fived. Because positioned against Martin’s vinegary loneliness and paced by Oz’s talent for knowing just how long to let a joke go on, Murphy is indeed great, not only as Kit, but also as nerdy hanger-on Jiff — all braces, eyeglasses, and tragic eagerness — who joins the Bowfinger camp as a coffee fetcher and body double.
The sight of Jiff, at Bowfinger’s ruthless command, preparing to run across an L.A. freeway speaks a documentary’s worth about the insanity and dumb luck involved in moviemaking. Martin used similar freeway imagery as the road to love in ”L.A. Story.” But in ”Bowfinger,” Jiff’s death-defying dash is as romantic, as absurd, and as brave a gesture as that of any pilgrim.
Those glints of passion are the gold in Steve Martin’s Hollywood farce.