A Beautiful Lie: Why Steve Martin's hilarious 1999 Hollywood satire Bowfinger is an underappreciated comedy classic.

May 7, 2020

 

I’ve wanted to make movies since before I even really care to remember. As a kid it was the main focus of almost everything I did. School seemed pointless and unfulfilling, and I considered watching films as my biggest source of education. I can remember, even as early as five, watching Mary Poppins and being fascinated by the matte paintings and use of animation. I can remember trying to figure out how they achieved Quint’s death at the end of Jaws. I can remember attempting to recreate certain moments and sequences at home on my own.

 

I’m certain, looking back on it now, that everyone thought there was probably something wrong with me. I can remember my parents patronisingly telling me that “life isn’t a movie”, as if they seemed to think that I struggled to differentiate from reality and the world of cinema. It wasn’t that I struggled to tell the difference between the two, it was rather that I wanted my reality to be MAKING movies. I wrote, I filmed, I designed posters. I was obsessed. And while I’m sure a great many of my film friends will tell you a similar story, I can only ever talk about my own experiences, and the honest truth is movies have always been intrinsically, fundamentally linked to me. Anyone who has ever met me will likely tell you the same.

 

So when I was around the age of ten, and desperate to try and start making films in a more serious manner than I ever had been, I found that I struggled to really gel with my peers in a way that could form what one might call real friendships. It wasn’t until secondary school and I met people who shared an enthusiasm, albeit not quite so passionately, for film making that I really found a “home”. Even then, it would be years before I found people who were truly as into it as me.

 

I know I’ve gone over this all before, but this backstory is important to understanding my head space and where I was at when I first saw Steve Martin’s 1999 comedy satire Bowfinger.

 

See, I dreamed, day and night, of jetting off to Hollywood and becoming a big movie maker. I didn’t have any real understanding of how the industry worked, or how much movies cost to make, or anything like that. To me, at that age, I couldn’t see any reason why I might not be able to produce a film on my camcorder that would be good enough to get myself noticed. As far as I was concerned back then, if I worked hard enough, and learned as much as I possibly could, then I would succeed.

 

Granted there are elements of that that I still feel are true, and a recent distribution deal for my second feature would seem to suggest that 10/11 year old Alex wasn’t all that wrong. But understanding the drive and passion I had, and that unwavering belief in my own abilities and dreams, will go some way to explaining why when I first saw Bowfinger I latched onto it so strongly.

 

For those of you who haven’t see Bowfinger, I strongly recommend you seek it out. It might not be Martin’s best work, but it’s certainly one of his better works, and it packs a lot of smart satire in amongst the goofy humour. Martin’s brand of dumb but clever comedy is on full display, and while at times it can be somewhat scathing of the film industry (and Hollywood as a whole) it is also a rather loving tribute.

 

It tells the story of Bobby Bowfinger, an almost broke wannabe film producer who dreams of making a smash hit. In his desperation he decides to deceive his rag-tag group of cast and crew friends into thinking they’re making a film with Hollywood’s biggest star, Kit Ramsay (a hilarious Eddie Murphy sending up his late 90s persona) in the lead. Bowfinger’s plan is simple, rather than attempt to secure Ramsay’s permission, he will simply have his actors approach him in the street and perform their scenes. However, given Ramsay’s paranoid and delusional nature, and the fact that the film Bowfinger and his team are making is a sort of body horror-esque sci-fi called Chubby Rain, things quickly begin to spiral out of control.

 

It’s an absurd premise, and of course in reality it would never work, but Martin uses the plot as a line on which to hang various gags and insights about the Hollywood machine and those who inhabit it. From the fresh off the bus wannabe actress who manipulates and seduces her way to the top, to the abuse of people’s desires, to the beg, steal and borrow nature of making a film, no one here is left unscathed. Big shot studio execs and down-and-out B-Movie producers all come under fire. Thespians, hacks, dreamers… the list goes on and on.

 

In an odd sort of way I related to Bowfinger. I was him. He’s not a particularly nice person, he lies and steals his way forward, he doesn’t care about the quality of his picture or whether or not what he’s doing is ethical, he simply wants to make his mark. But his passion for film, and the passion of all the characters to simply make movies and tell stories, resonated with me.

 

It’s also, and this is the most important aspect, absolutely bloody hilarious. The gags leap out of the script at a rate so quick that not a minute goes by without a comedic line or moment. Most of them land, and I have found, throughout the years, that there are things I’ve never noticed before still waiting to be discovered.

 

Ultimately, what I think makes Bowfinger such an underappreciated classic, is its heart. Despite the seediness of the characters, the unethical actions on display, and the satirical elements of the industry, it manages to maintain a consistently positive outlook on the whole thing. It’s a story of a man achieving his dreams, after a lifetime or working to do so. Bowfinger will stop at nothing to simply get his film made and, despite his questionable methods, for me there’s something oddly inspirational about that.

 

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© Alex Secker 2018