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Z-movie auteur Ed Wood’s posthumous ascension from Tinseltown’s lower depths to his current status as an object of ironic veneration betrays how little hope remains for the future of quality American filmmaking. Still, it’s difficult to resist capitulating to the legend of the irrepressible creator of Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen or Glenda, and other catchpenny schlock classics. As laid out in Rudolph Grey’s 1992 oral history, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., Wood’s story is as improbable and weirdly compelling as any of his movies. Through sheer doggedness, the director, enabled by the faith of his ragtag band of Hollywood outsiders, managed to create something, however absurd, from nothing.

Despite sterling performances by Johnny Depp in the title role and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood got the story all wrong. Burton felt compelled to transform the talentless, transvestite filmmaker’s life into an allegory about the misunderstood artist determined to express himself despite the world’s indifference. Although not explicitly a Wood biography, Frank Oz’s Bowfinger, a hilarious farce about a no-budget, seat-of-the-pants director, is clearly inspired by Wood’s saga and honors his valiant, crackpot spirit in ways that eluded Burton.

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Steve Martin, who wrote the smart, zany screenplay, stars as Bobby Bowfinger, an aging Hollywood hopeful who has never abandoned his goal of producing and directing a feature. When Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), an Iranian accountant, gives Bobby Chubby Rain, his alien-invasion script, the would-be filmmaker believes that he has finally found the property that will allow him to fulfill his dream. Bobby easily convinces his pals to serve as his cast and crew. These include Carol (Christine Baranski), a pretentious, over-the-hill stage actress; Dave (Jamie Kennedy), a studio gofer who agrees to “borrow” equipment for the shoot; Slater (Kohl Sudduth), a horny young actor awaiting his big break; and Daisy (Heather Graham), a striking young woman fresh from the Midwest who doesn’t object to a few sessions on the casting couch to further her career.

All Bowfinger needs to make Chubby Rain a “go picture” is a major name to head the cast. He comes up with an ingenious scheme to involve Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy), Hollywood’s leading action-movie star, without the actor’s knowledge. The director and his gonzo company assault Kit in public places and covertly film his reactions, convincing the egomaniacal, paranoid star that he’s become the target of some bizarre conspiracy. To serve as Kit’s stand-in, Bowfinger chooses Jiff (also played by Murphy), a humble, slow-witted errand boy.

Director Oz, who collaborated with the late Jim Henson on the Muppet movies and subsequently helmed Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?, and last year’s lively In & Out, mines all of the humor in Martin’s screenplay, interweaving slapstick set pieces (Jiff’s terrified attempt to cross eight lanes of speeding freeway traffic as part of an action sequence), sly character humor (the company’s various artistic and romantic rivalries), and satire (Robert Downey Jr.’s cameo as a smarmy studio executive; Terence Stamp’s scenes as Kit’s opportunistic spiritual guru, leader of MindHead, a Scientology-like cult). In Oz’s deft hands, Bowfinger’s 90 minutes zoom by without falters or fumbles.

Nobody would deny that Martin and Murphy are immensely gifted comic actors, but, in order to keep working, they often attach themselves to unworthy projects. (Apart from a hefty paycheck, what could have attracted Martin to Sgt. Bilko and The Out-of-Towners remake, or Murphy to Best Defense and Vampire in Brooklyn?) Bowfinger provides a vehicle worthy of their talents. Martin’s flair for humane silliness encourages us both to laugh at and, simultaneously, to root for his character. Kit isn’t much of a stretch for Murphy—the temperamental, entourage-pampered star verges on self-parody—but his geeky, warm-hearted, braces-brandishing Jiff is an inspired creation, an innocent thrust into the bewildering maelstrom of guerrilla filmmaking.

There’s not a weak link in the supporting ensemble, although the women snag the showiest roles. Beautiful Graham sparkles at what is fast becoming her specialty—the concupiscent ingenue—and Baranski makes savory ham salad of Carol’s thespian excesses. Even mutt Mindy, cast as Bowfinger’s dog Betsy, distinguishes herself in a very funny scene where, sporting red high heels, she stalks Kit in an underground parking lot.

Don’t let Universal’s insipid print ad campaign, apparently designed to dupe readers into thinking that Bowfinger is another generic summer no-brainer, discourage you. Should Oz’s movie and last week’s tricky Dick score at the box office, perhaps comedy, traditionally one of Hollywood’s strongest genres, can be wrested from the strangleholds of the baby-talking Adam Sandler and purveyors of cum jokes. CP