Who knew the guy with the arrow through his head would grow into such a sharp wit? Before Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, Steve Martin was playing dumb and dumber, segueing from stand-up shtickman to star and cowriter of such numbskull farces as The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains, and Three Amigos! Then a truly funny thing happened: He embarked on a solo career as an Off Broadway playwright, New Yorker contributor, and Sophisticated Screenwriter, culminating with his sparkling script for the new-to-video Tinseltown satire Bowfinger.
Martin first flirted with literary maturity in Roxanne (1987, Columbia TriStar, 107 mins., PG, also on DVD), his update of Cyrano de Bergerac. He cast himself as C.D. Bales, a small-town fire chief with an oversize schnozz who’s starry-eyed for Daryl Hannah’s titular astronomer. Martin makes the familiar story feel fresh, creating an aura of whimsy while bringing real pathos to his writing; he makes C.D.’s yearning tangible. The only trouble is, in true selfish-actor fashion, Martin hogs all the best lines. With Hannah’s character underdeveloped, we’re left wondering what C.D. sees in Roxanne, aside from her dazzling looks — which contradicts the don’t-judge-a-book moral of the story.
The object of Martin’s affection in his next self-penned picture, L.A. Story (1991, Artisan, 95 mins., PG-13, also on DVD), is a larger one: La-La Land. His warmly warped depiction of this deeply shallow metropolis — a place where weatherman Harris K. Telemacher (Martin) orders a ”half double decaffeinated half-caf” with a straight face — defined the City of Angels in the popular imagination more than any other ’90s film save perhaps The Player. If only the human characters were as three-dimensional. Bouncy salesgirl SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker) personifies the city’s giddy spirit — down to the quirky spelling of her name — but Martin’s script unfortunately focuses more on Harris’ other love interest, an Annie Hall-esque journalist played humorlessly by Martin’s then wife, Victoria Tennant. As a result, L.A. Story feels less like the work of an original screenplay artist than a West Coast Woody Allen film — Manhattan Beach.
Following three years of hit-and-miss acting in other people’s movies (Father of the Bride, Housesitter, Leap of Faith), Martin went back to the classic-lit well for A Simple Twist of Fate (1994, Touchstone, 106 mins., PG-13), his contemporary adaptation of George Eliot’s Silas Marner that miscasts him as the obsessive recluse (renamed Michael McCann). While the attempt at seriousness is admirable, the script’s tone is severely unsteady. After a dour opening half-hour, Twist abruptly turns into One Man and a Little Lady once McCann adopts an adorable orphan girl, then suddenly shifts back to melodrama when her sleazy father (Gabriel Byrne) tries to reclaim her. There’s no arc to McCann’s transition from gloomy hermit to wild and crazy dad to custodial crusader. And once again, writer Martin shortchanges the supporting characters in favor of himself.
The beautiful irony of Bowfinger is that it’s a terrific script about a terrible script — Chubby Rain, a sci-fi schlockbuster that inspires hack producer Bobby Bowfinger (Martin). He concocts a scheme to make megastar Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) unknowingly appear in the movie. The far-fetched premise holds up because Martin stretches reality far enough to make it funny but not ridiculous.
Bowfinger cuts even deeper into Hollywood than L.A. Story did, from MindHead (a ballsy spoof of Scientology) to the actress (Heather Graham) whose career instincts are as killer as her body. And finally, Martin has written a role for someone else that’s funnier than his own — in fact, he’s written two. Murphy scores as both paranoid narcissist Kit and his dweeby brother Jiff, an errand boy/body double.
In one of the film’s many moments of lunatic brilliance, Bowfinger dupes Jiff into running across a busy freeway for a scene by telling him the drivers are stuntmen. Crafting a Sophisticated Screenplay is almost as difficult a trick. Now that Martin’s mastered the art, only one question remains: When’s he going to direct? Bowfinger: A Roxanne: B+ L.A. Story: B A Simple Twist of Fate: C
Bowfinger 1999 UNIVERSAL 97 MINUTES RATED PG-13 ALSO ON DVD