There is something unfinished about Steve Martin's latest love letter to Los Angeles, Bowfinger. Think L.A. Story without any funny jokes, interesting characters or Sarah Jessica Parker. But the film does have a good premise: No-name director Bobby Bowfinger (Martin) promises a producer that he can land hot movie star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) in his next film. Bowfinger can't actually provide the star, so he does the next best thing: With cameras rolling, he and his actors stalk Ramsey in the hopes that the star's natural reactions to the oddball skits that the actors perform around him will be good enough to use in the film. It is, after all, "only an action movie." Funny, right? ... Wrong.
The film-within-a-film that Bowfinger is shooting is called Chubby Rain, based on a script written by his accountant. Bowfinger's talentless cast of actor wannabes includes Heather Graham -- who flexes her acting muscles by playing a cute Midwestern girl who can't act. Is this supposed to be irony or self-parody?
Eddie Murphy, who won't accept a role anymore unless he can play multiple characters, plays both Kit Ramsey and Kit's look-alike, Jiff. Murphy overacts both characters. Ramsey, the egomaniacal movie star (a big stretch for Murphy) and his Scientology-like cult is ridiculous; Jiff, the flat-footed nerd, is equally ridiculous. Admittedly, though, Murphy delineates the two characters effectively -- it's easy to believe that Jiff is just a guy who bears a strong resemblance to Ramsey, not an identical twin.
When he wrote the script, Steve Martin must have known he was on to a good idea, and so felt no need to write funny jokes or make his character likable. Bowfinger is a shallow, deceitful man. Despite his lack of talent or taste, we're supposed to empathize with his dream of filmmaking -- much like the lead in Ed Wood. But Wood was naive, and thought his ideas were good. Bowfinger is such a sleazeball that he doesn't tell his actors Ramsey is not a willing participant in Chubby Rain, instead inventing some cockamamie story about Ramsey's unique version of method acting. Surely he would know what crap he was producing.
Bowfinger seems lazily and hastily written. For instance, Ramsey's nerdy look-alike, Jiff -- who gets so ballyhooed in the film's trailers -- is basically unnecessary. He enters the film halfway through to perform a couple of stunts and back-of-the-head shots that could have been done by anyone with a passing resemblance to the star. Bowfinger doesn't capitalize on the fact that Jiff, with a quick makeover, could look exactly like Kit. The confusion between the two could then have lent itself to something resembling humor.
And why doesn't Bowfinger tell his cast that they are making Chubby Rain without Ramsey's permission? It would have been a funnier, more believable movie if the whole gang was in on the deception. Instead, Bowfinger just looks like a jerk.
This movie suffers from the smugness of a kid who's just been promoted to the gifted class. Martin developed a funny premise and hoped that would be enough. But his jokes fall flat, and his story is lame. Director Frank Oz doesn't curb the actors' tendencies toward smarmy hamming, and the results are embarrassing.
There are also far too many Hollywood in-jokes to appeal to the general public. Martin tries to parody L.A.'s shallowness, but ultimately succumbs to it. Movies about movies run the risk of appealing to a limited audience, and Bowfinger is one of them. Who still thinks that directors sleeping with stars is funny? Who cares about producers taking power lunches and talking on cell phones? People in the movie biz, that's who. Which is why half-assed movies like this continue to get made.