Aug 25, 1999 at 12:00 am

Movies about making movies run the risk of alienating audiences who aren’t actually in the film industry, but Bowfinger finds that happy medium between insider joke and mass entertainment. This surreal tale of guerrilla filmmaking in the shadow of the Hollywood sign is chock-full of goofy charm, and taps into the universal struggle of outsiders seeking their share of the American dream.

Written by Steve Martin as a cross between L.A. Story and The Jerk, Bowfinger sets up a unique premise. Martin plays Bobby Bowfinger, the producer-director-guiding light of an ultra-low-budget alien flick called Chubby Rain, who becomes convinced that he can finally achieve a modicum of success — something that has eluded him in a lifetime in Hollywood — by casting world famous action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) as the lead.

When Kit rejects him, Bowfinger comes up with an ingenious plan. The cast and crew of Chubby Rain will stalk Kit and clandestinely film these strange encounters as scenes of their movie. What makes this bizarre plan work is the raging paranoia of Kit Ramsey, whose escalating fear of aliens drives him to the cultish Mind Head, run by an eerily serene guru-CEO (Terence Stamp).

In addition to his dead-on portrayal of Kit, Murphy also plays Jiff, who Bowfinger hires as a body double and gofer. Using only braces and radically different body language — Jiff is cloaked by his awkward shyness — Murphy creates a marvelously compassionate character who becomes the film’s heart. With Life and Bowfinger, Murphy demonstrates that he’s matured from a brash comedian into a formidable, chamelon-like actor.

Director Frank Oz keeps Bowfinger moving at a brisk clip, never lingering too long on a joke and bringing real tension to scenes like Jiff’s terrifying dash through freeway traffic.

Bowfinger is a much kinder, gentler satire than, say, The Player, but it still has bite. Martin has populated his story with naïfs who pursue their dreams with unwavering devotion. And why shouldn’t they succeed in Hollywood? It’s a company town where ambition is essential and talent is optional.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].