Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bowfinger (1999)

The Movie: “Bobby” Bowfinger (Steve Martin); head of the small, going nowhere, Bowfinger International Films, has one lifetime dream; make movies. Unfortunately, he has pretty much been locked out of the system his whole life and his dream constantly denied. Having recently come upon his last shot; a script written by his accountant, Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), for a low-budget science fiction thriller called Chubby Rain, Bowfinger decides to go for it.

Bowfinger gathers up Afrim and his other associates to make the movie; including Dave (Jamie Kennedy), his assistant; Carol (the ubiquitous Christine Baranski), an aging actress; and Slater (Kohl Sudduth), a teenage slacker in the body of a twenty-something. Unfortunately, there are problems from the beginning. While Bowfinger is able to convince the big studio executive Jerry Renfro (Robert Downey Jr.), to promise to distribute his film, that promise comes with a catch; the film has to include the hot action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). Of course, Ramsey refuses to give Bowfinger the time of day.

Desperate, Bowfinger decides to shoot the film anyway, but in a way so that Ramsey doesn’t know that he’s starring in the movie. Inevitably, complications spring up surrounding those involved in the film. There’s the fact that due to severe budget restraints, nearly all of the film equipment is “borrowed” by Dave from the studio where he works. Daisy (Heather Graham), the woman Bowfinger hires to be Ramsey’s love interest in the film, may be the sweet young thing off the bus from Ohio with stars in her eyes; but she’s sure figured out pretty quickly how to use sex to get her way. Then there’s Jiff (Murphy again), the amiable and good natured, yet slow witted, young man hired as a Kit Ramsey look-alike; who has a bigger connection to the star than anyone realizes.

However, the biggest complication is Kit Ramsey himself. Ramsey is mentally and emotionally unstable; and the mysterious happenings that are suddenly springing up around him are starting to drive him over the edge. MindHead (the Church of Scientology, but with enough superficial details changed that they can’t sue), the organization backing Ramsey, is really starting to worry about what’s happening with their cash cow…

The Review:
It’s due back every night by five, or it’s a felony."

For me, one of life’s more interesting (in the positive sense of the word) experiences is the discovery that something I’ve long enjoyed can be enjoyed and appreciated on levels that I was previously unaware of. That is my experience with the movie Bowfinger. I first saw it when it came out at the very end of my high school years, and I found it to be an immensely clever and funny movie. My parents even gave me a VHS copy for my eighteenth birthday, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve watched it. However, at the time I just knew it as a clever and funny movie. In the decade-plus since I have learned a lot about Hollywood and the movie industry; partly due to my fascination with movies, partly due to my knack for picking up random bits of trivia. I still like and enjoy Bowfinger as much as I ever did; but now understanding a lot of the references, I find that I appreciate it much more than I did when I first saw it.

Bowfinger is a satirical riff on Hollywood written by Steve Martin. Considering Martin was an industry insider for roughly thirty-something years by the time he made this movie, he would have been intimately familiar with all of Hollywood’s ins and outs. As a comedian, he also had the instinct to determine what the industry’s most ridiculous aspects were, and how he could go about skewering them.

Probably the thing I find most notable about Bowfinger these days is its all-around tone of moral ambiguity. An interesting thing I have learned about morals and ethics is that oftentimes the official moral and/or ethical codes of conduct for a system aren’t made with everyone’s well-being in mind, despite what the code’s supporters would have you believe. Instead, they are established with the specific goal of making sure that those on top remain in control, while outsiders and those on the bottom rungs of the ladder stay in their place. This is very notable in the entertainment industry, whether you’re talking Hollywood or music. It’s why I don’t shed any tears whenever the heads of these industries whine that internet downloading and so called “pirates” are destroying them; the way they’ve stacked the deck in their favor, there’s no way it will cause them any serious harm, however much some of us might want to hope. Their unreasonable junkyard dog attitudes toward the issue stem not from legitimate grievances, but because they cannot stand the idea of something from what they consider to be their domain to be anywhere outside their total control.

This is what Bobby Bowfinger is up against. Bowfinger has a simple life goal, he wants to make movies. He never mentions a desire for laurels or accolades, doesn’t want to win an Oscar; he just wants to be able to make his own movies. Unfortunately, Bowfinger is locked outside the system, and as a result that dream has been stymied. It’s clear from the view we get of him and his house during the opening credits that Bowfinger has spent his life jumping through every legitimate hoop he could, some of them probably multiple times. Chubby Rain is probably Bowfinger’s last chance to obtain his dream, and he is determined to do it. Unfortunately, by this point he is well aware that there is no way he will be able to do it by legitimate means.

What I love about this aspect of the film is the fact that even though Bowfinger violates every “professional” Hollywood ethic, even though he does some things that seem to violate my own personal codes of conduct, everybody involved comes out ahead as a result. For example, my favorite part of the movie is a sub-plot involving his film crew. To get a film crew, Bowfinger and some of his associates go down to the U.S.-Mexico border and round up some immigrants fleeing from the border patrol. The Mexicans are mostly part of the background, but we get to see their transformation none the less. At the start it seems like Bowfinger is just exploiting these men; it’s clear that they have no idea what is going on. However, as the movie goes on, we witness them learning to run the equipment, discussing movies, and in other ways growing much more competent in their unexpected craft. The last time we see them, it is clear that they are much better off having worked for Bobby Bowfinger than they would have been otherwise.

This applies to all of the major characters too. It is because of all of Bowfinger’s dirty deeds, not in spite of them, that he and his longtime associates are finally able to obtain their dream of making movies. Bowfinger exploits Daisy in many ways to get his movie made (although I find I can’t fault him too much for that, considering how much she exploits everyone around her on her own); but at the end it’s clear that even if she hasn’t quite reached the heights of stardom she’s been after, Bowfinger has put her into a position where it’s probably only a matter of time. And as for Jiff; it’s apparent that while he’s too good natured to let it affect him too much, it’s been difficult for him always being in his brother’s shadow. Bowfinger does wind up exploiting Jiff’s connection to Kit Ramsey to finish the movie, but in return Jiff gets what he’s always wanted; a group of people who love and value him for who he is, not who he’s related to (which, ironically and perversely, is exactly what he finds with Bowfinger and his crew), and the opportunity for him to shine on his own humble merits.

Even Kit Ramsey and the heads of MindHead, the individuals who arguably most deserve to get screwed over (and who would argue they were the most screwed over by Bowfinger), ultimately benefit from Bowfinger’s actions. Kit winds up the star of another successful film that further cements his status as a prominent action star. And of course, as MindHead’s major cash cow, what benefits Kit also benefits them. The only real damage Bowfinger does to these people is to their pride, they were beaten at their own game by individuals they hold in contempt.

Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy bookend each other as the headliners of Bowfinger. They both are amazing physical comedians with wonderful facial expressions. However, they also both add their own individual contributions to the movie. Martin gets the chance to break away from the idiot characters that he is known for; and while Bobby Bowfinger is definitely a Steve Martin character, he is also very different from what Martin’s usual type leads us to expect.

Murphy, meanwhile, is amazing in the dual roles of Kit and Jiff Ramsey. Whether as the mentally unstable prima donna, or the good natured but slow witted geek, Murphy plays both roles to perfection. In fact, while he is uncredited, I cannot help but feel that Murphy had some input on the script for these two characters, so well does he fit them. Heather Graham, meanwhile, gives the impression that she is thoroughly enjoying her role as Daisy.

Ultimately, Bowfinger works well on several levels. At its most basic, it is an extremely funny and clever David and Goliath story where the underdogs come out on top in the end. However, if you know anything about Hollywood and the entertainment industry, it is also an extremely sharp satire on the inner workings of those two unhallowed institutions. A great movie, definitely worth watching multiple times.

No comments:

Post a Comment