BOSTON — Mediocre movies can be irksome, tedious, and very hard to sit through. But bad movies - really bad ones, made so incompetently that you can't imagine how they ever made it from the drawing board to the theater - have a fascination that can't be denied.
Take a picture like "Plan 9 From Outer Space" directed in 1958 by Edward D. Wood Jr., who would be a completely obscure figure if the sheer goofiness of his haphazard techniques hadn't caught the public's fancy. Far from forgotten, he's the main character of Tim Burton's 1994 bio-pic "Ed Wood," and an unproduced screenplay Wood wrote ("I Woke Up Early the Day I Died") is coming to the screen next month courtesy of Hollywood star Billy Zane.
Other examples abound. Steve Martin's new comedy, "Bowfinger," plunges into these eccentric waters with gusto. The hero, Bobby Bowfinger, is a would-be movie director whose ambitions far exceed his abilities. A master of self-delusion, if little else, he convinces himself that a powerful producer will support his science-fiction project, "Chubby Rain," if he can land international superstar Kit Ramsey for the lead.
Kit won't even talk to him, much less sign on the bottom line, but Bobby is undeterred. He'll simply film Kit on the sly, using hidden cameras, while he shoots the rest of the story with a regular cast and crew. Who cares if the result is an incomprehensible mess? It'll have action, aliens, special effects, and Kit Ramsey's handsome face - all the ingredients for a sure-fire hit.
Viewed through Bobby's eyes, this plot recalls "Ed Wood," which is also about a talent-free director who never heard of quality control. Viewed through Kit's eyes, it's another twist on "The Truman Show" and "EDtv," with predatory cameras stalking a reluctant star. What gives "Bowfinger" its own personality is a subplot about Kit's unique blend of egomania and paranoia.
Bobby's movie crew keeps harassing him with horror-movie gizmos, not realizing that Kit - already a believer in alien conspiracies and outer-space invasions - sees their science-fiction fantasies as proof of his own worst nightmares.
"Bowfinger" would be a better entertainment if it were more firmly separated from the bad-movie scene it satirizes. It has hilarious moments, especially when Bobby and company start experimenting with fantasy-film effects, which they see as a matter of gooey liquids and breakaway body parts. But too much of "Bowfinger" relies on the sort of frantic bad taste that the on-screen filmmakers like to indulge in. In the end, "Bowfinger" is mediocre - whereas "Chubby Rain" would be absolutely awful if it really existed, and probably more fun to watch.
The cast of "Bowfinger" is solid, headed by Martin as the title character and Eddie Murphy as both the unwitting superstar and his addleheaded brother. Frank Oz directed Martin's screenplay, providing almost enough chuckles to keep you from noticing how wildly uneven the picture is.
*Rated PG-13; contains cartoonish violence and sexual jokes.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society