The stalking of celebrities by the media will never be a hot-button issue to the general public. In bemoaning their lack of privacy, movie stars are as likely to curry sympathy with the rest of us as they would by complaining that the Jacuzzi is always too darn hot.
Bobby Bowfinger doesn't care, either; he has a movie to make. The intrepid hero of "Bowfinger" -- writer/star Steve Martin's latest Hollywood send-up -- is a wannabe director who isn't about to let a little thing like permission get in the way of a great performance. Desperate to cast action icon Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) in his struggling science-fiction project, but stymied by the actor's lack of interest, Bowfinger hits upon a novel solution: He'll just follow the unsuspecting Ramsey around with a camera, throwing lines and co-stars at him without warning and counting on his confusion to look like the finest method acting up on the screen.
"Tom Cruise had no idea he was in that vampire movie until two years later," he rationalizes.
Ramsey is a risky target for such guerrilla tactics: Already intensely paranoid, he looks for racist conspiracies everywhere he goes. (He even counts the appearances of the letter "K" in scripts, to see if the total is divisible by three.) While watching out for the white man, he simultaneously entertains the delusion that aliens are out to get him -- a preoccupation that causes him to go over the edge when Bowfinger's tinfoil space invaders begin to accost him on street corners and in his driveway.
Ramsey's downward spiral is expertly portrayed by Murphy, who has always counted rage and terror among his strongest comedic tools. Another is mimicry, winningly showcased when Ramsey's breakdown forces Bowfinger to audition last-minute stand-ins. The job goes to Jiff, a bespectacled, braces-wearing geek Murphy plays with a nearsighted squint and mucus-impaired dialect that are neither black nor white, just 100 percent nerd.
With Murphy at the top of his game, we can largely ignore the periodic dips in Martin's otherwise entertaining script. Occasionally, we're asked to laugh at amusing situations that don't pan out into actual jokes. We don't get many chuckles at all from Daisy (Heather Graham), a duplicitous first-time starlet who sleeps with every member of Bowfinger's crew who can advance her career. Martin and director Frank Oz seem to suggest that the movie business would be improved if actresses stayed on one casting couch at a time.
Still, there's something reassuringly familiar about Bowfinger's flailings. He's Ed Wood, but with even less scruples. Martin's film, though, is meant to connect with those of us who read People, not Variety. Don't tell us we have no right to pick through the garbage outside stars' homes -- not when minor treasures like "Bowfinger" are waiting among the castoffs.