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Film - Jonathan Romney on Steve Martin's latest

The new Steve Martin film begins with the picture of a broken man. Bobby Bowfinger, a failed Hollywood director, sits in his apartment surrounded by the detritus of faded hopes - from the posters of the summer stock shows he once acted in, to trophies of his time as a commercials hack. As a blues song moans on the soundtrack, he looks for encouragement to his dog, but even she slopes off in embarrassment. We'd almost be ready to weep for the man, if he didn't at the very last moment lower his head, revealing the ultimate sign of Tinseltown abjection - a nasty little ponytail dangling over his neck.

This is a remarkably downbeat start for a Hollywood comedy, and you wonder if Martin is telling us something. As the recent BBC documentary about him revealed, his output of the past few years (the nadir being a Sgt Bilko movie) finally made him feel enough was enough. He has spent recent years revitalising himself by writing a play and assorted off-the-wall squibs for the New Yorker. His comeback film Bowfinger, which Martin has written himself, is almost his self-portrait - and looking at Bobby Bowfinger's cheery cabaret posters, you can't help thinking of Martin's own early years as a trouper on the stages of Disneyland.

You have to be pretty confident to make a comedy about irredeemable wretchedness, and in Bowfinger, Martin really is as bullishly inventive as he's been since his early anarchic goofball stuff. Directed by Frank Oz, Bowfinger may be a throwaway showbiz farce, yet it's rather more trenchant about film-world folly than the supposedly lethal insights of satires such as The Player or Get Shorty. The crushed but crazily ebullient Bowfinger is convinced there's always one more stab at success, and his last hope is a sci-fi script entitled Chubby Rain (why "chubby"? Because it contains aliens, of course). As far as we know, it has nothing going for it except its closing line - "Gotcha, suckers!" And indeed, up in Beverly Hills, action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy, doing a cruel parody both of his own hot-shot persona and of Will Smith) is after just such a career-capping catchphrase: "Where's my 'Hasta la vista, baby'?"

Bowfinger's ploy is to film Ramsey without him realising it - a sort of sampled-verite approach or, as he prefers to call it, "Cinema Nouveau". It's a brilliant, preposterous idea, although not as unlikely as all that. After all, Roger Corman gave Peter Bogdanovich his first break by letting him re-cycle spare footage from an unfinished Boris Karloff vehicle, then splice in the real Karloff. And the notorious hack savant Edward D Wood made his legendary farrago Plan 9 from Outer Space with Bela Lugosi in a starring role, even though Lugosi died halfway through shooting.

Bowfinger offers a pretty extensive panorama of Hollywood High and Low - from Bowfinger's shoddy pseudo-hacienda to the plush eateries where it doesn't matter who you know but whom you eavesdrop on. There's a wonderful bit of tomfoolery in one such place, when Bowfinger - hastily whipping off his passe ponytail, which was Velcro all along - riffs off Robert Downey Jr's conversation in the next cubicle. The film has a sharp eye for upwards-and-downwards career traffic. While Christine Baranski's no-hope grande dame plummets with glory, Heather Graham's schoolmarm hick (sweetly parodying her role as the ingenue porn queen in Boogie Nights) determinedly climbs the fame ladder by screwing every appreciative dope in sight.

Considering it's so much his film, Martin is remarkably generous in encouraging Murphy to steal the show relentlessly in not one but two roles. As Kit Ramsey, he's a hard man teetering on the edge of gibbering paranoia - detecting covert KKK presence in an action script, and looking for salvation in a barmy self-enhancement cult, where he frenetically chants his personal mantra: "Keep It Together - keepittogetherkeepittogetherkeepittogether!" Murphy also plays Kit's idiot twin, a nerdy delivery man who'd rather fetch coffee than play stunt double in murderous traffic sequences. Even though they don't really play off each other (which is in the nature of the film), Murphy is the best foil Martin has had since he shared a body with Lily Tomlin in All of Me.

When Hollywood stars do this sort of fond salute to the bumbling "little guys", the results often smack of condescension, especially when a huge budget has manifestly been ploughed into an authentically scuzzy look. It's one thing to be nostalgic for Z-grade ineptitude when you're in the audience: you're bucking the system, however infinitesimally, when you opt to watch an Edward D Wood film instead of Independence Day. But when it's the studios celebrating beautiful losers, that's something else again - and for a successful bizarro auteur such as Tim Burton to hail a Poverty Row buffoon as a founding father, as he did in Ed Wood, looks like bad faith. There's a fond fantasy at work in Bowfinger, too, namely the secret wisdom of Hollywood - that every movie really costs $2,184. Unlike Burton's Wood, however, Bobby Bowfinger is no more visionary or exalted than the rest of Hollywood - he's just capable of being a bigger crook on a smaller scale. And it's clear that if he ever gets his big chance, he'll be quite capable of making a multi-million-dollar movie look as if it cost $2,184. You'd be surprised how many of them do.

"Bowfinger" (12) is on nationwide release

This article first appeared in the 25 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Why the old left is wrong on equality