Hidden Gems: Bowfinger
By Kyle Lee
October 26, 2018
The movies have such an allure on us. Everyone’s got some kind of connection, and many of us would love to write, direct, or act in a movie. The obstacle is often that we don’t have the talent, or maybe we don’t have the ingenuity needed to get deals done, make filming happen, manage star egos, etc. Frank Oz’s 1999 movie Bowfinger is one of the great comedies, a spot on spoof of Hollywood, and it’s populated with people who know how to get things done, or at least try to get them done, but also with people who may not have the most talent in the world. Written by its star Steve Martin and co-starring in two of the best roles of his life, Eddie Murphy, Bowfinger is in the running for the best work either of these comedy giants has ever done.
Bobby Bowfinger (Martin) is a down on his luck movie producer/director who has just commissioned a new science-fiction script from his accountant, a wannabe writer, about alien invaders to Earth. The problem is that even though the script is pretty good, Bowfinger’s a nobody and can’t get it made. He strikes a verbal deal with mega-producer Jerry Renfro (Robert Downey, Jr.) that Renfro would back the movie if Bowfinger could get the biggest star in the world, Kit Ramsey (Murphy) to star in the lead role of Keith Kincade. The issue then is that Kit doesn’t agree to it, and Bowfinger is forced to find a look-alike, Jiff (also Murphy), to film close up scenes, while Bowfinger illegally follows Kit around and has the other actors play their roles interacting with him. Bowfinger has told the other actors that Kit is a serious method actor and won’t be interacting with them outside of their filmed scenes or addressing them at all. They’re all in awe of his commitment to the craft. An unsuspecting Kit begins losing his hold on reality, thinking there are real aliens invading Earth. People keep running up to him, acting crazy, and talking about an alien invasion. And why does everyone keep calling him Keith? This is even further complicated by Kit’s involvement in a big celebrity religious organization called Mind Head (a thinly veiled Scientology parody) that keeps their own tabs on him. With this wonderful setup, many hijinks ensue.
Bowfinger is a wonderful representation of classic Steve Martin, very subtle and smart jokes mixed in with pure idiocy and a lot of heart. These people are some of the lowest of the low on the totem pole of Hollywood, trying to strike big with one great opportunity. You can easily see the parallels to Mel Brooks’s The Producers or even Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Like the characters in those movies, these people are mostly good hearted, and just want to work and be successful. Bowfinger is a schemer, but a noble one to some degree. He may be illegally filming Kit Ramsey, but he’s well-meaning, isn’t he?
Martin is perfect in this role as the fast talking Bowfinger, desperate to make a name for himself before he turns 50. The movie could’ve worked with just him as the star, but thankfully we also get the best work of Eddie Murphy’s career in his double role. Kit is paranoid, angry, and mentally unstable. His rapid fire delivery of a monologue telling his agent he wants to play the role of a mentally challenged slave (so he can win an Oscar) is one of my favorite in the movie. It also has one of my favorite subtle jokes in it when he says of great action leading man roles: “these parts go to Arnold, and Van Damme, and Jackie Chan. And they can’t even speak English good.”
But even better than his role as Kit, Murphy’s creation of the look-alike Jiff is the best work of his career. Jiff is nerdy, but really wants to be in the movie, and has the biggest heart of any character in the movie. It’s the most unlike Eddie Murphy role we’ve seen from him, but that’s not why it’s impressive. Jiff is just so dorky, adorable, and lovable that you can’t help but laugh both with him and at him. It’s really a wonderful performance, not just comedically, but as a real actor. Murphy takes a total wallflower and brings him to the foreground. But Murphy and Martin aren’t the only stars here, there’s a great tapestry of characters that all get a shining moment. Christine Baranski as an over-the-hill never-was-a-star, Jamie Kennedy as Bowfinger’s shady cameraman, Heather Graham as the young could be starlet, Terrence Stamp as the leader of Mind Head, and a group of illegal Mexican immigrants that Bowfinger grabs to be his crew all make us laugh.
Martin’s brilliant script takes big swings at a barrage of Hollywood targets as well. Martin denies Scientology being the inspiration for Mind Head, saying Mind Head was just based on any number of fads and religions that’ve passed through Hollywood over the years, getting their hooks into various stars along the way. But the satire is spot on. The hardworking Mexican crew members all work their way up from not speaking English in the beginning to trading technical notes on Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now, and fielding other movie offers by the end of the film. Heather Graham’s character is a swipe at any number of young stars more than willing to sleep their way into power and stardom. Robert Downey, Jr.’s tiny role as the mega producer is particularly great. He boasts that although his ex-wife got the kids in their divorce at least he got to keep his car. And there’s a great moment when thumbing through Bowfinger’s screenplay that he reads the title, shuffles through the rest of the script saying “and then all this” before only reading the last line. It’s another little moment that always makes me laugh.
There are even more throwaway bits about unions, renting equipment, arrogant producers, pretentious actors at auditions, and many more. This movie is so chock full of jokes that you’re likely to miss half of them on your first viewing. But that just makes it more fun to re-watch this movie over and over again, as it keeps revealing new ways to make you laugh. Truly great comedies are sadly rare. Movies that work on a narrative and joke level, while being dense enough to warrant re-watches and still be as enjoyable as the first time, if not more so. I’m always surprised when I reference this movie and people haven’t seen or sometimes even heard of it. Two of the biggest stars in Hollywood comedy history somehow made a Hidden Gem. Go see it if you haven’t already.