As dreams go, Bowfinger's is not a lofty one, but if you happen to be as far down on the entertainment-industry status ladder as Bowfinger, you don't allow yourself to dream too big. However, the day finally comes when this would-be mogul has to take action or creditors will shut him and his shabby little production company down. At that moment, the only script in his possession is an alien-invaders saga penned by Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), his Iranian accountant.
Of course, it's a terrible script, but Bowfinger is desperate, and besides, movies go into production every day with terrible scripts. But what those pictures have that Bowfinger's doesn't is a big-name star, and so, because Bowfinger's chance of getting an above-the-title star to appear in his film is something less than zero, the resourceful auteur concocts a semibrilliant scam in which a famous action-adventure actor named Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy, in one of two roles) appears in the film not just without his permission but without his knowledge.
It's an outrageous premise, and from the outset, director Frank Oz (who has worked with Martin previously on Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Housesitter) flogs his performers to keep the pace from flagging unfortunately with only mixed results. As Bowfinger, Martin moves through scenes as if his pants were on fire. Conceptually, his character is not all that different from the one he played in Sgt. Bilko. Both Bilko and Bowfinger are outrageous schemers and liars, without the slightest trace of conscience, who will say or do anything to get what they want. The extra dimension that Steve Martin the screenwriter has given Steve Martin the actor, to make his character more interesting, is that Bowfinger as a filmmaker has a lot of Ed Wood in his soul. As a result, the movie he and his ragtag crew are making wouldn't be that much better if Ramsey had agreed to participate.
With the exception of Murphy, whose ability to transform himself into an infinite number of characters is now approaching the status of legend, the rest of the cast Oz has assembled acquit themselves only adequately or worse. As Daisy, the naive young girl who arrives in Hollywood ready and willing to sleep her way to the top, Heather Graham is lovely, but she's also almost as awkward playing a bad actress as she has been in her recent spate of so-called straight roles (Boogie Nights, The Spy Who Shagged Me). As Carol, a former stage actress who is grasping at straws in joining Bowfinger's cast, the acclaimed Christine Baranski gives a campy, highly affected performance that doesn't appear all that different from the performances she gave in Bulworth and Cruel Intentions. (Has she always been a one-note actress in film?) As the leader of a mind-control cult that counts Ramsey as one of its members, Terence Stamp is merely serviceable, and Robert Downey Jr. drops in for one of his briefest and least memorable cameos.
Murphy is the one consistently bright light. As both Kit Ramsey and Kit's brother Jiff, Murphy is razor-sharp. The superstar Kit is a raging, paranoid megalomaniac who believes that aliens and Whitey are out to destroy him. As a result, he alternates between star-tripping tirades and panic attacks, both of which Murphy executes with hilarious brilliance. Of the two characters, Jiff is less flamboyant but no less funny. Signed up by Bowfinger to step in for Kit as a stuntman and butt-double, Jiff, who wears braces and horn-rimmed glasses, would really rather be a gofer, running errands and getting coffee at least in most cases; he does like it when he has to appear on camera with Daisy in the scene where she takes off her shirt.
Martin has far more time onscreen than Murphy, whose impact is broken up as he splits his time between two characters. Still, Murphy steals the picture. After a few years now as a dependable, if not spectacular, box-office star, it is time to acknowledge that Eddie Murphy isn't just back but back and better than ever. On the other hand, Martin seems lost in the doldrums. Bowfinger certainly doesn't represent his worst work, but it is far from the inspired insanity of his best. Without Murphy, the movie wouldn't be a complete disaster, but you can't imagine it without him, either.
Opens Aug. 13.