Robert Bowfinger (Steve Martin) wants to be a player so bad he can taste it. Pushing 50, with only the shell of a production company to show for his efforts, he sees his chance at the big time in Chubby Rain, an alien-invasion script churned out by his accountant. But he needs a bankable action-star in order to interest the studios, and the one he’s set his sights on – Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy), a superstar whose vainglory has made him a jittery, paranoid mess – won’t touch the picture. Bowfinger’s desperation leads him to an insane kind of resourcefulness, and he decides to go ahead and make the movie with Kit anyway – but without Kit’s knowledge. He has his motley cast ambush Kit in restaurants, clothing stores, and driveways and play the scenes as Bowfinger films them with hidden cameras. Kit, of course, is terrified by what’s going on – all he knows is that complete strangers keep babbling about aliens and spitting up stage blood wherever he goes.

It’s a clever idea, and it gives screenwriter Martin and director Frank Oz plenty of room to gig moviemaking and L.A. lifestyles. Kit belongs to a group called MindHead, a cult with swanky offices that’s led by a steely-eyed guru (Terence Stamp). As Kit threatens to come apart, all he has to fall back on is his less than reassuring mantra ("Keep-it-together-keep-it-together-keep-it-together") and MindHead’s feel-good panaceas. ("Happy Premise #2: There is no giant foot trying to squash me.")

Some of the funniest scenes are the ones showing how Bowfinger manipulates the Chubby Rain footage to make it look like Kit is a willing participant in the production. A scene in which Kit is unnerved by the sound of footsteps in a shadowy parking garage scores off every scene like it that we’ve ever had to sit through. But the movie gets a bonus laugh from the way Bowfinger creates the effect of slightly mistimed footsteps – it’s an animal gag that contrasts nicely with Kit’s inappropriately hysterical reaction. And there’s some charming stuff involving Bowfinger’s camera crew, a gang of illegal immigrants that he scoops up one step ahead of the INS. ("The best crew that we can afford!" Bowfinger crows.) Initially nonplused by their new vocation, by the film’s end they’re reading Cahiers du Cinema and arguing over Citizen Kane.

But Bowfinger’s most inspired stroke is the character of Jiff (also played by Murphy), the nerdy, naive ringer that Bowfinger hires as a stand-in for Kit. Murphy never manages to do much with Kit – probably no one could do much with Kit – but, by God, he has Jiff down cold. Murphy does one of his incredible morphing numbers with Jiff, and absolutely disappears inside the misty-eyed, delighted grin and halting speech patterns. He holds his body entirely differently as Jiff than he does as Kit, and he even manages to express Jiff’s character in the movie’s most manic piece of physical comedy, a full-bore sprint across a crowded freeway. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything in terms of Murphy’s real personality that Jiff is endearing and real while Kit the superstar is never more than half-formed, but the contrast is so striking you can’t help but notice it.

Heather Graham, as the fresh-faced girl from Ohio who methodically beds anyone in a position to advance her career, is a surprisingly convincing comedian. She does her Chubby Rain scenes with a polyglot accent that sounds like she’s speaking through a mouthful of dimes, and she uses her gawky, stringbean body in an all-out way while chasing Kit’s limousine down the street. But Christine Baranski as an aging vamp is a misfire; Murphy should have taught her how to invest a character with feeling.

Bowfinger doesn’t have a mean bone in its body or a sharp tooth in its mouth. Its targets are all the usual suspects: Scientology and bed-hopping starlets and martial-arts movies and Hollywood divorces. It’s a lo-cal version of The Player, pleasant and entertaining and innocuous as a rhinestone. But it’s hard to get its single diamond – Jiff’s infectious grin – out of your mind.

– Tom Block

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