"Bowfinger" is the kind of comedy you sit down to with a big grin of anticipation -- written by and starring Steve Martin, directed by Frank Oz (the sharp, clean director of "In and Out," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Little Shop of Horrors"), featuring Eddie Murphy in his new persona as skillful creator of the wittiest current comic characters -- and end by crossing your fingers in the forlorn hope of finding at least one good moment in the film. Actually, "Bowfinger" does have one superb comic event, which comes along midway through the film, but let me set the table first. And the setup, unfortunately, is better than the meal.
Bobby Bowfinger (Martin) is the classic far-fringe Hollywood producer hanging on by his fingernails in what appears to be a converted garage somewhere at the ass end of town. His three faithful retainers are about to watch him go down the tubes for the last time, when inspiration strikes. One of them has written a dismal sci-fi epic called "Chubby Rain," wherein the aliens come to earth in raindrops (making them chubbier, get it?), and the desperate Bobby is told that if he can get the top action star Kit Ramsey (Murphy) to sign on, the picture is a go.
No way, of course, so Bobby decides to shoot it anyway, filming Kit surreptitiously while his own actors run up and deliver their lines to him. But Kit is already paranoid, and these weird encounters just drive him into the arms of MindHead, a parody of Scientology. (It appears, by the way, that much of the power of the parody has been excised by studio suits frightened of offending their current Scientology stars.)
Still, some stunt shots are needed, and the casting call yields a Kit Ramsey lookalike -- in fact his brother Jiff (also Murphy, natch) -- and the one truly fine comic moment in the film. Jiff is told to go to the far side of the eight-lane freeway, and run and dodge his way across toward the camera. He's also told the little fib that all the vehicles are being driven by trained stunt drivers. Oz cranks up the freeway sounds as poor Jiff tries to make his way through and around each lane of 70-mph cars and trucks whizzing through the frame, one lane at a time, climbing the center divider, working his way toward the camera in the increasingly faint hope that he won't die. It's as close to a classic comic moment as I've seen this year.
Apart from that, the film has little to recommend it. Martin's script is surprisingly flabby, even repetitious, and Oz's direction seems casual at best. Heather Graham, as a girl fresh off the bus ("Where do I go to be a star?" is her first question), carefully sleeps her way to the top like a broken-field runner picking a line through the defense ("I've never done it lying down before," she reports after one encounter). All in all, a sad waste of good talent.