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"Bowfinger' could have been a contender

Those saddest of words "it might have been" make this Steve Martin flick even more disappointing than it is. There's a great movie in there, but it never made it to the script.

The premise for Bowfinger would make a terrific paragraph in any of Steve Martin's comical essays, but that alone doesn't guarantee a good movie. Martin is a master of absurd brevity in his books, so why doesn't he realize when to stop setting up a screenplay joke and get to the punchline?

Bowfinger has a great film nestled in its sluggish 97-minute running time. The problem is that Martin's script stretches half of that potential beyond its practical purpose, then crams the other half into the final 10 minutes. The former becomes stale, and the latter _ along with the audience _ gets shortchanged.

Martin plays Bobby Bowfinger, a Hollywood wannabe who never will, unless he can pull a creative rabbit out of his hat. A search for the perfect script has finally ended, to his opportunistic way of thinking, at least. Bobby's underworked accountant has devised a can't-miss piece of schlock called Chubby Rain that has everything needed to be a hit: killer aliens and a catchphrase that can worm its way into the nation's consciousness.

Missing from Chubby Rain is a major star to give voice to such triteness. Someone like Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy), who's depicted as a cross between Will Smith and Arnold Schwarzenegger with a racially paranoid streak. Kit doesn't need Bobby as much as the filmmaker needs him, so Bobby devises ways to make Kit his lead actor without the star knowing it. Bobby's acting ensemble will ambush Kit with Chubby Rain dialogue while a hidden camera crew records the responses to splice together later into a hit.

Bowfinger dawdles with this concept much too long before Kit goes into seclusion, prompting Bobby to find a lookalike for the finishing touches. His strikes lead with Jiff, also played by Murphy with thick glasses, braces on his teeth and a nerdish inflection in his voice. Murphy makes Jiff the funniest character in Bowfinger, but even that inspired turn gets repetitive; Jiff doesn't rise or fall to another level until the closing minutes, when Bowfinger offers hints of the movie this should have been.

Without spoiling the plot, let's just say that there's a scene in which Bobby and his troupe finally get a chance to see themselves on the silver screen. Their expressions of pride and wonderment strike emotional chords that the rest of Bowfinger has been too smug to recognize. Martin should have compressed the majority of the movie into a first act, massaged the ending into a second act, and concocted a finale that would teach Bobby the satisfaction of creating art over profit. Rather than a dramatic arc played for laughs, the movie remains flat-lined, with sporadic blips of amusement.

There is a certain poetic injustice in the fact that mediocrity wins out in Bowfinger, but Martin doesn't seem concerned with exploring it, as Robert Altman did with The Player, or Albert Brooks does in his upcoming gem, The Muse. Bowfinger poses as being furious with Hollywood artifice, yet it sacrifices satire for crowd-pleasing fun, ultimately becoming as unambitious as anything Bobby himself would create. What purpose does it serve to bite the hand that feeds you, if you have no teeth?

Even if you ignore the missed opportunities of Bowfinger, the film seems like a string of ideas that Martin would sum up in one sentence in books such as Pure Drivel or Cruel Shoes. Especially the lovable losers populating Bobby's low-rent world.

Daisy (Heather Graham) is a fresh-faced nymphet straight off the bus from Ohio for whom artistic integrity means sleeping with the right people on the way to the top. Carol (Christine Baranski) is an actor ahead of her time, if Gloria Swanson's look ever comes back into vogue. Afrim, the moonlighting accountant (Adam Alexi-Malle), is more adept at putting words on a page than projecting them from his mouth. The rest of the hangers-on probably wouldn't warrant a sentence of their own.

Bowfinger spins off into a number of irreverent notions that aren't fully realized. Kit owes his success to a religious group called Mind Head that should have Scientology lawyers pondering the legal definition of defamation, at least until it's obvious that the spoof doesn't matter. Robert Downey Jr. appears in one scene as a Hollywood high roller who could be a fine nemesis for Bobby, if given the chance. Even the notion of secretly filming Kit is standard stuff, with the exception of one scene when a dog cleverly aids the process.

The only qualities of Bowfinger demanding our constant attention are Martin and Murphy. Neither actor disappoints; then again, they haven't before, with even more inferior material. Martin's conniving ways are more polyester than silky, and the only timing he knows is impeccable. Few actors can rant with as much improvised precision as Murphy does with Kit's leaps to racist conclusions and his fear of extraterrestrials. He's more affecting as ultra-timid Jiff, although a whiny voice and nearsighted squint are pretty much the end of the joke.

For every moment of nimble brilliance in Bowfinger, there are several minutes of flat gags and reprises of those that worked fairly well the first time around. That's no way to make a movie. Even Bobby Bowfinger would realize as much.

MOVIE REVIEW

Bowfinger

Grade: C

Director: Frank Oz

Cast: Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Heather Graham, Christine Baranski, Terence Stamp, Adam Alexi-Malle

Screenplay: Steve Martin

Rating: PG-13; profanity, sexual situations, violence

Running time: 97 min.

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