All the elements ought to be in place for "Bowfinger." It's got two of the most beloved comedians in recent Hollywood history, riding separate but convergent waves of career comeback. It seeks both to celebrate and mock its own genre, the mindless summer blockbuster. It's written by star Steve Martin, whose deft accomplishments in prose are only now getting their due respect. And it's directed by Frank Oz, who, in addition to his enormous influence on America's youth as the voice of Yoda, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, has brought the filmgoing public such minor comic classics as "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Little Shop of Horrors."
So it's a little disappointing to emerge from the movie theater feeling that "Bowfinger" never manages to transcend its summer megaplex environment for all its geniality and its total lack of dick jokes or fart noises. I'm not exactly complaining -- this is more than adequate entertainment for a rainy, possibly even a merely overcast, afternoon. But the combined talents of Martin and Eddie Murphy ought to produce more than an old-school "Saturday Night Live" sketch stretched to 90 minutes with a lot of random comic business. There are some good laughs in this good-natured Tinseltown sendup, but I kept feeling that "Bowfinger" was a kind of place-holder, and that the real movie was happening somewhere else -- I'll bet hanging out with Eddie and Steve after the shoot each day was a lot more fun than anything we get to see on screen.
Martin's best work here is his acting, not his script. Truth be told, the "Bowfinger" screenplay feels pallid and predictable next to the zinger-driven outrageousness of the Farrelly brothers ("There's Something About Mary") or the near-surrealism of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson ("Rushmore"). But Martin remains a comic performer of rare fluency and skill, and he renders Bobby Bowfinger, a onetime child star who pretends to produce movies out of his ramshackle Hollywood bungalow, as both a pathological liar and the sweetest guy you'll ever meet. Bobby's accountant (Adam Alexi-Malle) has written an atrocious screenplay called "Chubby Rain," in which aliens invade Earth disguised as raindrops, and a snotty studio head (a nice cameo by Robert Downey Jr.) scornfully suggests that if Bobby brings in action superstar Kit Ramsey (Murphy), "It's a go picture."
The only problem with this, of course, is that Bobby has less access to Kit Ramsey than the valet parkers at your average Santa Monica Boulevard bistro. After bluffing his way into Ramsey's limo and then being forcibly ejected, Bobby returns to the offices of "Bowfinger International Pictures" visibly oozing dejection and rejection. Even with his body language telling the unvarnished truth, Bobby can't stop himself from lying to his sad-sack assemblage of unemployed actors and technicians. So he concocts a scheme to ambush Kit at various "locations" and film him without his permission, blithely assuring a confidante that "Tom Cruise didn't know he was in that vampire movie until it came out."
Bobby tells his cast and crew that Kit has agreed to star in "Chubby Rain," but that his unique acting method calls for total isolation and no rehearsals. Obviously we're deep into the improbable mechanics of farce here, and while absurdity may be Martin's forte, the precision demanded by the farcical form really isn't. Too much of "Bowfinger" involves the filmmakers' generically wacky pursuit of the increasingly paranoid Kit, who flees into the clutches of a pseudo-Scientology outfit called MindHead (their slogan: "Truth Through Strength"). It's all lively enough, but using two of the contemporary screen's finest comics to spoof a chase picture feels like a waste of time. Some of the better moments come from Christine Baranski, as a fading theater actress overburdened with pretentious technique who is "co-starring" with Kit in "Chubby Rain." At first she protests that Kit's desire to be alone is "so young," but when watching Kit's genuine horror at being hounded by an apparent band of lunatics, she is overcome with emotion at his actorly brilliance.
Since abandoning his risk-free, smart aleck role in the "Beverly Hills Cop" series, Murphy has begun to fulfill his almost limitless potential as a character actor, whether by playing multiple characters in the same movie ("The Nutty Professor") or the same character over many years (as in the recent, and quite wonderful, "Life"). Vain, pointlessly angry and none too bright, Kit is a character no black actor would have dared play in a general-interest movie 15 years ago -- especially no actor with Murphy's sometimes-troubled image. He waves guns around at the slightest provocation, obsessively counts the number of K's in a screenplay (to determine if it's divisible by three, and thereby betrays crypto-Klan influence) and seems to have an unhealthy preoccupation with the Laker Girls.
If Murphy's portrayal of Kit is etched in acid, his secondary role as Jiff, a doofus with thick glasses and a bad haircut whom Bobby hires as Kit's double (and the crew's coffee gofer), is shaded with surprising compassion. Jiff may be a socially maladjusted stammerer whose experience in the film industry is as a "frequent Blockbuster renter," but Murphy understands him not just as a figure of fun but as an indomitable spirit whose boundless optimism is ultimately rewarded. In his last few movies, Murphy seems to have stumbled on a mission for his comic genius -- bringing to the screen a far more complicated vision of African-American experience than the media customarily presents. Of course he's an entertainer, not a didact, but this is a far more generous and fertile career direction than playing the smirking, homophobic Axel Foley five more times.
For all the fine acting by Martin and Murphy -- their funniest moments together come in a kung-fu parody, all the way at the end of the movie -- "Bowfinger" really isn't about Bobby or Kit (or Jiff, for that matter). Bobby's the same lovable loser and Kit's the same mercurial asshole after they make "Chubby Rain" as they were before. They're just the most enjoyable cogs in a mechanical plot that seems dull even before it laboriously clanks and screeches into motion. In terms of Martin's writerly output, "Bowfinger" is a lot closer to "Three Amigos!" than to "Roxanne" or the blissful, wistful "L.A. Story." Martin may express himself more gracefully than Bobby Bowfinger does, but the two share a certain quality of vagueness or absence that has plagued Martin's entire career as an actor and writer. Neither one seems convinced that he has anything to say, or that it's actually worth saying, and "Bowfinger" can offer no compelling evidence.