Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Universal, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & DTS 5.1, French Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, single side-dual layer, 18 chapters, rated PG-13, 97 min., $26.98, street date 1/18/2000.
Directed by Frank Oz. Starring Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Heather Graham, Christine Baranski, Jamie Kennedy, Adam Alexi-Malle.
How does Bobby Bowfinger (Martin), Hollywood's least successful director, get Kit Ramsey (Murphy), Hollywood's biggest star, in his ultra low-budget film? Any way he can. With an ingenious scheme and the help of Kit's eager and nerdy brother Jiff, an ambitious and sexy wannabe (Graham) and an over-the-hill diva (Baranski), Bowfinger sets out to trick Kit Ramsey into the performance of a lifetime. Enjoy the fun with Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin - together for the first time in the hit comedy Bowfinger.
Of all the genres, I don't think any depends on talented performers as heavily as comedies. Strong scripts or skilled directors can make virtually every other kind of production overcome mediocre acting, but not comedy. If the performances fall flat, the program will fail virtually every time.
This emphasis on acting talent conversely benefits lackluster material. I can't count the number of times I've watched movies or TV shows that offer little wit or spark in any way other than the performers but still come to love those pieces. Great comedic talent can't always save poor material, but it can make those works much more entertaining than they should be.
Bowfinger is a film blessed with both good material and a fine cast, but I think it's the acting that takes the movie to another level. To be sure, Steve Martin's script is clever and funny, but the lines themselves aren't enough to make this movie go; it's the acting, particularly a stunning performance from Eddie Murphy.
I saw Bowfinger during its theatrical run and liked it but didn't feel dazzled by it. By this point in my life, I should know how meaningless many of my initial reactions can be; lots of my favorite films didn't do much for me that first time, and comedies are at the forefront of that fact. Still, though I should have known better, Bowfinger wasn't a film I planned to see again.
However, since I'm an absolute sucker for supplements, the announced DVD release of the film enticed me. A commentary, a documentary, some other features and both Dolby Digital and DTS sound? (I'm gonna find a use for that DTS decoder if it's the last thing I do!) That DVD sounded like a winner to me!
So I preordered Bowfinger and watched it soon after arrival. While it's too soon for me to place the movie in the pantheon of my all-time favorites, this second screening indicates that the film may have a long, productive life in my DVD collection.
Most of this positive sentiment is due to Murphy's fantastic dual performance as superstar Kit Ramsey and likable goof Jiff. Kit's really an exaggerated version of Murphy himself, with his excessive ways and his entourage, and Murphy seems to greatly enjoy this form of self-parody. Kit didn't make that great an impression the first time around, but upon second viewing, I found the character fascinating and absolutely hilarious. Murphy invests the character with such over-the-top emotion that he's constantly entertaining and uproarious.
Jiff, on the other hand, is much more laid-back and lovable, and Murphy's equally hilarious in this role. At times it's hard to believe the same actor played both parts because everything about them is so totally different; even though Jiff (obviously) looks just like Kit, they barely seem to resemble each other. This doesn't happen because of makeup that changes one's appearance; it's all in the attitudes with which Murphy endows the characters. I look forward to watching Bowfinger many times over just to delight in all the nuances Murphy brings to the parts. The best performance of his career? Yeah, I think so.
Steve Martin largely plays the straight man in the film, though he's not really put in that kind of dry position; he certainly gets quite a lot of strong material himself. However, I just was so bowled over with Murphy that Martin seemed to get put into the background to a degree. Of course, now that I've said that, I'll probably change my mind next time I watch the movie, but that's how I feel right now.
Anyway, Martin is thoroughly terrific as the title character. He makes Bowfinger vaguely likable but doesn't overexert himself to endear the guy to the audience. Bowfinger's a cartoon of a Hollywood wannabe, and while his ruthlessness seems generally inept, he shouldn't seem too sympathetic to the audience. He doesn't, but we're still happy when he makes it at the end.
The remainder of the cast is also quite strong. Heather Graham stands out because, well, she's unbelievably hot. No, that's not it. I mean, yeah, she really is unbelievably hot, but she displays a fine aptitude for comedy here. After her stiff and flat performance in the Austin Powers sequel, I began to doubt that she had any flair for comedic material, but Graham dispels that notion with her deft and witty performance as the stereotypically manipulative actress Daisy.
Frank Oz is not and never will be a great director, but he knows enough to stage some more-than-competently made films. When he has great talent - as he does here, or in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and What About Bob? - he can produce terrific films, but he's inconsistent; pictures like Housesitter and In and Out were mediocre at best, despite some strong actors. For whatever reason, Oz did seem to bring out the best in his cast here, and as such, Bowfinger is a keeper.
Bowfinger appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While it doesn't completely lack flaws, "Bowfinger" looks excellent, just as one would expect of such a recent film.
Sharpness looks consistently strong, with virtually no evidence of softness at any time during the film. I noticed some jagged edges at times, though these may have been the result of the anamorphic downconversion for my 4X3 TV; it's often hard to tell if this effect occurs due to transfer problems or 16X9 issues, but they definitely pop up, though not to any severe degree. The print used seemed perfectly clean; I never saw any grain, speckles, scratches, hairs or other flaws, and I also detected no digital artifacts.
Colors appear appropriately saturated and look lovely; all hues seem accurate and are rather vibrant. Black levels are always completely solid, and shadow detail seems well-rendered; I never had any trouble discerning nuances in dark scenes. I flip-flopped between giving this picture an "A" or an "A-" and only went with the latter because of the "jaggies;" as such, regard the image quality to be a strong "A-."
While it's not a tremendously ambitious mix, the 5.1 audio of Bowfinger suits the film quite nicely. Both Dolby Digital and DTS tracks appear on this DVD. I flipped between them as I watched the movie and also rewatched many segments to attempt to detect a difference. What'd I hear? Not much discrepancy. In fact, the only noticeable difference stemmed from the fact that the DTS track was decidedly louder than the Dolby mix; eliminate that factor and I think the two would sound virtually identical.
Bowfinger boasts a fairly decent front soundstage and creates an overall three-dimensional ambience that's quite good. This isn't Saving Private Ryan, so there's little bombast, but the mix utilizes the five discrete channels well and provides a pretty realistic atmosphere. The best scenes are those such as the one in which Jiff has to cross the crowded highway; traffic noises whiz past you quite effectively.
The quality of the audio seems consistently fine. Although I occasionally noticed a slightly harsh edge to the speech, dialogue seemed clear and natural; I must note that sometimes speech did appear to get a little lost in the mix, though not with great frequency. Music seemed a little trebly but featured some strong bass and appeared generally well-reproduced. Ironically, effects were probably the most consistently strong aspect of the audio; these always appeared realistic and provided a surprising impact. Bowfinger won't win any awards for sound design, but it's a perfectly competent complement to the onscreen action.
Although Bowfinger doesn't officially appear to be part of Universal's fantastic Collector's Edition line, it nonetheless offers a pretty nice complement of supplements. First up is a running audio commentary from director Frank Oz. To be frank (ha!), it's not a very compelling track. Oz's comments tend to fall into these categories: 1) praise for the actors or other filmmakers; 2) mention of the many scenes that were shortened (it sounds like the original cut lasted about 17 hours); 3) explanation of how the Mexican characters develop. That last one seems to be a particular obsession for Oz, apparently since he seems to have taken some heat for the politically incorrect scene in which they're "rounded up;" Oz appears almost desperate to convince of that their characters are treated fairly. Hey, it didn't matter to me, but the subject - and most of the others - gets pretty old pretty quickly. Oz also loves to tell us when certain scenes were shot at different times; he will point out that part of a scene was filmed one day and another section done three weeks later. Some decent information appears in this track, but overall I found it disappointingly dry and often tedious.
Next up is a 23-minute promotional documentary about the film called "Spotlight On Location". As with many studio-produced pieces, this one largely serves to tell us how terrific the movie is. It offers interview snippets from all the main actors and Oz and intercuts these with film scenes and some on-the-set shots. It lacks any kind of real "making of..." emphasis and reveals very little about the creative processes behind the film. Still, it's pleasant and entertaining and seems to be a more substantial piece than most of these featurettes; it ain't great, but it's worth a watch.
Five and a half minutes of deleted scenes show up on the DVD. Only two segments comprise this; one offers an alternate version of the bit in which Bowfinger tells his friends about the project, and the other is an unused piece that shows Bowfinger searching for Kit's address. The latter is pretty funny, actually, and the former is good but a bit lengthy. Oz refers to many other deleted scenes in his commentary, so it's strange this is all we find. Nonetheless, I enjoyed being able to see them.
The DVD also contains about three minutes of outtakes. I despise the usual "Whoops! I blew my line! Ha ha ha!" outtakes that dominate this genre, but these were better than most. That's because mixed in with the goofs are some unused takes of scenes that are quite amusing; Murphy tosses in a line to describe Jiff's "encounter" with Daisy that's absolutely hilarious - and one I plan to steal for my own use, thank you very much! As such, these outtakes are much more entertaining than most.
Recent Universal DVDs seem to go nuts with trailers, and Bowfinger is no exception. Not only does the DVD include that film's preview, but we also get ads for current sappy melodrama The Hurricane (in the "Universal Showcase" section) plus clips for Liar Liar, The Nutty Professor, and EdTV (all in the "Recommendations" area).
Finally, the DVD features mediocre biographies for six of the actors and for Oz, and there are production notes on the disc as well; I found those to be mildly interesting, though the "everybody's great!" tone of Oz's commentary infects this text as well. Surprisingly, these notes are not duplicated in the DVD's booklet; in fact, unlike many Universal titles, there is no booklet. Apparently a DVD has to officially be part of the Collector's Edition series to merit a booklet these days; I guess that's why American Pie and Fast Times... had them but Bowfinger and The Red Violin don't. It's an odd and cheap omission, anyway.
Whoops - that was a premature "finally" in the last paragraph. That conclusion applies to those of use who don't own DVD-ROM drives, but for the lucky folks who do, the show continues. According to the DVD itself, the DVD-ROM features "include additional materials about the movie, sound clips from the film, behind the scenes interviews and other information." Still no DVD-ROM drive for me equals still no comments about them, but at least you know they're there! Note this, however: if you click on the DVD-ROM section of the disc, you get to view a rather nice photo of Graham in a slinky black dress. Best DVD-ROM feature I've ever seen!
Bowfinger makes for a very good DVD. The movie itself greatly entertained me and seems to be a title that will not only hold up to repeated viewings but also will prosper through those occasions. Picture and sound quality appear very good, and the supplements are pretty nice as well. Bowfinger comes highly recommended.