Several scenes of explosive hilarity punctuate "Bowfinger," a welcome first-time pairing of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. Screenwriter Martin's typically quirky and clever premise -- a down-and-out filmmaker surreptitiously shoots a feature toplining a huge star without the actor knowing it -- provides him with an ample clothesline on which to hang innumerable gags and jokes, many of which are very funny indeed. But pic is limited by its sketchlike nature and a fundamental lack of grounding in reality. Still, the comedy runneth over here, which should spell potent late-summer B.O. for this Universal release that is helpfully rated PG-13.

Several scenes of explosive hilarity punctuate “Bowfinger,” a welcome first-time pairing of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. Screenwriter Martin’s typically quirky and clever premise — a down-and-out filmmaker surreptitiously shoots a feature toplining a huge star without the actor knowing it — provides him with an ample clothesline on which to hang innumerable gags and jokes, many of which are very funny indeed. But pic is limited by its sketchlike nature and a fundamental lack of grounding in reality. Still, the comedy runneth over here, which should spell potent late-summer B.O. for this Universal release that is helpfully rated PG-13.

Although nearly every character here is in the movies or wants to be, “Bowfinger” is not really a showbiz satire or sendup, unlike many looks at the industry, nor is it remotely an insider’s picture. Naturally, the setting allows for a dramatis personae driven by the usual Hollywood traits — avarice, naked ambition, unchecked ego and so on — but the most notable element linking the characters is a sense of self-delusion so highly developed that it allows them to live in something like a state of expectant bliss, no matter how desperate their current circumstances.

Certainly no one is more delusional than Bobby Bowfinger (Martin), a schlock producer-director who has never made it in Hollywood but, at 50, realizes that it’s now or never. Stimulated by a sci-fi action script called “Chubby Rain” penned by his cheerful Iranian accountant Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), Bowfinger sets out to make his fortune with this project and, in a wonderful scene at Le Dome full of bluff, con and bravado, actually gets a commitment to the picture from a smarmy studio exec (a droll Robert Downey Jr.) — if he can deliver the world’s biggest action star, Kit Ramsey (Murphy).

Bowfinger manages to sneak onto Ramsey’s estate to deliver the script, but is almost as quickly bounced out by the egomaniacal actor, who rants and raves at his hapless agent and beefy entourage, and is overwhelmed by a paranoia that is partly focused on the white establishment but is mostly driven by a fear of being attacked by aliens.

It’s the latter that will serve Bowfinger so effectively: After he implements his scheme of capturing candid shots of Ramsey in public reacting to the antics of the director’s crazed actors, Ramsey develops a genuine terror that his nemeses have arrived to torment him.

In the slim hope that Bowfinger might yet deliver on his countless promises to them, a small and seedy support group helps him out in this shot at the big time, although they are kept in the dark about the unknowing nature of Ramsey’s involvement. Never-has-been actress Carol (Christine Baranski) melodramatically revels in her chance to act opposite such a big name, even if she can’t understand why her boss won’t allow her to meet Ramsey; studio gofer Dave (Jamie Kennedy) keeps Bowfinger supplied with everything from “borrowed” equipment and fancy cars to information on Ramsey’s whereabouts; and handsome slacker actor Slater (Kohl Sudduth) is delighted to participate in auditions for the leading lady, who turns out to be Daisy (Heather Graham), a straight-off-the-bus Midwestern waif who systematically sleeps with everyone on the production she thinks is important to her success — which means everyone.

With several “scenes” left to shoot, the terrorized Ramsey goes into seclusion at the Celebrity Relaxation Center of Mind Head, a self-actualization cult presided over by the steely Terry Stricter (Terence Stamp). Bowfinger responds by finding a Ramsey look-alike, Jiff (Murphy again), a bashful, terminally nerdy fellow with braces and thick glasses who’s thrilled to help out. Murphy has been brilliantly, brashly funny up till now as the arrogant star, but he more than doubles the pleasure once he re-enters the picture as this milquetoast who performs well beyond the call of duty for his director.

Most prominent example of Jiff’s cooperative attitude comes in a riotous sequence in which Bowfinger asks him to run across eight lanes of speeding freeway traffic, with assurances that all the cars are manned by stunt drivers who know what’s going on. Superbly filmed and performed, convulsive scene is arguably worth the price of admission by itself; still, there are several other richly comic episodes, including an unsuspecting Ramsey being stalked in a garage by Bowfinger’s shoe-wearing dog and, in a climactic action set piece, Ramsey being “kidnapped” by the production as a tree-enshrouded crane truck pursues his getaway car.

Having collaborated with Martin on three previous occasions, director Frank Oz is clearly in tune with his writer-star’s sense of humor, and the entire cast performs with great verve and comic energy.

Weirdest element is Martin’s title character, who seems disconnected from any known reality; unencumbered by any suggested personal history or normal emotions, it’s as if several unsuccessful decades in Hollywood have made him a flipped-out zombie with nothing left but strangely channeled chutzpah. Script and performance impart no special feeling or poignancy to Bowfinger’s quixotic attempt to take on Hollywood, and the way he undertakes it, however funny, is so lunatic that it creates as much puzzled disbelief as it does carefree delight.

Tech credits for this Brian Grazer production are consummately pro.

Bowfinger

Production

A Universal release of a Universal and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Brian Grazer production. Produced by Grazer. Executive producers, Karen Kehela, Bernie Williams. Directed by Frank Oz. Screenplay, Steve Martin.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Ueli Steiger; editor, Richard Pearson; music, David Newman; music supervisor, Pilar McCurry; production designer, Jackson Degovia; art director, Tom Reta; set designers, Karl Martin, Les Gobruegge, Dawn Snyder; set decorator, K.C. Fox; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Martin Raymond Bolger; stunt coordinator, Bud Davis; associate producer, Kathleen Courtney; assistant director, Michele Panelli-Venetis; casting, Margery Simkin. Reviewed at the Beverly Connection, L.A., Aug. 4, 1999. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Bobby Bowfinger - Steve Martin Kit Ramsey/Jiff Ramsey - Eddie Murphy Daisy - Heather Graham Carol - Christine Baranski Dave - Jamie Kennedy Afrim - Adam Alexi-Malle Slater - Kohl Sudduth Kit's Agent - Barry Newman Jerry Renfro - Robert Downey Jr. Terry Stricter - Terence Stamp
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