June 24, 2005

Movie Review: Bowfinger

If you know anything about Hollywood, you will really enjoy this smart, snarky, well-paced comedy from 1999 directed by the almost-always enjoyable Frank Oz. My review contains some plot spoilers, but relatively few joke spoilers, and the jokes are the real reason to see the movie.

Steve Martin plays a ne'er-do-well wanna-be movie producer who has perfected the art of the hustle but has yet to actually make a movie. His hangers-on includes the brilliant Christine Baranski, playing an over-the-top dramatic act-tor (who is considering leaving Hollywood for a bit part in a production of Cats in Edmonton since she hasn't found any work in so long), his friend, confidante, and cameraman Jamie Kennedy, a part-time receptionist/accountant, a guy who washes executives' cars at a studio, and an adorable and under-used collie. His accountant writes what sounds like the worst science fiction movie ever and he decides to sink his every last dollar and pull every last trick in the book to make it into a movie. To get the project started, he has to convince a cynical studio executive played by Robert Downey, Jr. and the world's biggest movie star, played by Eddie Murphy, (cast alongside a very funny and exapserated-looking Barry Newman) to participate. He fails miserably, but by then has picked up the wide-eyed Heather Graham and hired a crew (of sorts) so he can't stop now -- and he decides to go ahead and make the movie anyway. According to IMDB, the movie was "Based on a real incident in 1927. A Russian filmmaker covertly shot footage of the vacationing Mary Pickford, and fashioned an entire film around the footage, creating the illusion that Pickford was actually starring in this Russian film." So that tells you how they get around the big movie star turning down the role and it sets up one of the running gags in the movie.

The movie is funny on at least three levels. First, the direct jokes are all quite enjoyable and sometimes riotously funny. Eddie Murphy's crossing the freeway, Steve Martin's lunch at the Ivy with Robert Downey, Jr., and several of the scenes where the movie was actually filmed all have good visual jokes presented deadpan with impeccable timing. Perhaps the most glib of all personalities in Hollywood, only Steve Martin could have pulled off this role with such credibility. Second, there are jokes about how the entertainment industry works, why so many movies are as bad as they are. Frank Oz and Steve Martin are both ideally suited for taking these kinds of shots at Hollywood from within it. The casting call scenes, the way in which the script is revised as the filming goes forward, and the way that the crew is assembled are all played for laughs -- but you're left with a sneaking suspicion that the humor is based more in truth than you would like to imagine. And wow, does the movie-within-the-movie looks really, really bad. Finally, there are the Hollywood in-jokes, which may be the most funny part of the movie. On this level, Heather Graham's character is based on Steve Martin's old girlfriend Anne Heche, and it's evident that Martin has a wicked sense of humor about that chapter of his life. The transparent and scathing references to the Church of Scientology are hilarious (as is the apparent analogy of Eddie Murphy's role to a prominent Scientologist).

I have nothing bad to say about this movie. It's packed with references to other movies and the celebrity gossip that no one seems able to avoid. The comedy is well-written by Martin, well-timed by Oz, and well-played by the cast. It is consistently funny throughout; an uneven pace or an uneven spread of jokes is a big danger with a movie this ambitious. But Bowfinger really pulls it off. It's very, very funny.

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