Bowfinger (1999)

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Find me a script with a retarded slave – then I’ll get an Oscar! Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) is a producer-director on the outs and an Indian accountant has written a script about aliens he wants to bring to action superstar Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). It could be Bobby’s big break! Unfortunately Ramsey is a narcissist who’s deeply paranoid about the industry’s problem with black actors – and what about those aliens! He’s being mentored at the Mindhead cult by Terry Stricter (Terence Stamp) whose religious dicta are not much use. Bobby’s solution? Shoot the movie around Kit – without him knowing! They do it guerilla-style using a crew of illegal Mexican border-hoppers – with an ageing actress Carol (Christine Baranski) and Daisy (Heather Graham) the newcomer hot off the Ohio bus to Hollywood, doorstepping Ramsey at his usual Beverly Hills haunts. Even they don’t know he’s not really in it. Then Kit really goes crazy with all the aliens confronting him on the street and is sequestered at Mindhead’s ‘Special Celebrity Quarters’ – so Bowfinger recruits his idiot lookalike, Jiff – who happens to be Kit’s brother … Written by Martin who is re-teamed (for the fourth time) with director Frank Oz, this is good fun with some killer lines but never really hits the cynical heights you might expect. There are the lousy potshots about the trampy actress who’ll sleep with literally anyone to get more scenes;  the very obvious digs at Scientology’s hold on Hollywood’s top actors; and the general jokes about dumb action films. Held together by an energetic sense of its own ridiculousness and everything (and everyone…) it’s sending up.  Robert Downey Jr appears in a small part as a movie executive.

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Less Than Zero (1987)

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Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is back in Los Angeles for Christmas following his first semester at college and finds that his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is now using cocaine and his best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) whom he found sleeping with Blair over Thanksgiving is a serious cokehead indebted to the tune of $50,000 to the nasty Rip (James Spader – frighteningly reasonable) who runs a rent boy ring and gets his creditors to service his clients. This portrait of life in the higher-earning echelons of LA is chilling. Bret Easton Ellis’ iconic novel is a talisman of the mid-late Eighties coming of age set and the icy precision of his affectless prose is inimitable. Once read, never forgotten. Harley Peyton’s screenplay is a fair adaptation but the casting lets this down – with the exception of Downey who is simply sensational as the tragic Julian, gifted with a record company for graduation by his father (Nicholas Pryor) and then simply dumped when he screws up.  This lovable loser’s mouth drools with the effects of his addiction when rehab doesn’t work and he spirals unhappily trying to bum money off his uncle to open a nightclub. Watch the scene when he talks to Clay’s little sister as though she’s a lover who’s pushing him away – knockout. The Beverly Hills scene with its horrible parents and their multiple marriages and awkward dinners with exes and stepchildren, making teenagers grow up too fast, is all too real.  While McCarthy and Gertz just don’t really work – McCarthy’s supposed to be a vaguely distanced observer but he doesn’t convey much beyond a bemused smile, Gertz looks confused and both look too old – the shooting style is cool and superficial, like the lives it critiques. Directed by Marek Kanievska.

Wonder Boys (2000)

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Michael Chabon’s droll campus novel of dejected one hit wonder creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) gets a funny and tender adaptation from the late Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves. James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is the weird and ubertalented student whose work is stupendously impressive so when agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) arrives at a college event for aspiring authors he immediately transfers his affection from his transvestitite companion to this new kid on the block and a raucous weekend on and off campus ensues. At a party given by the Chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) – who happens to be Grady’s mistress – and her husband Walter (Richard Thomas) a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is stolen,  the family dog is shot and the body hidden in a trunk, and tension rattles when Sara reveals she’s pregnant by Grady, whose wife has taken off to her parents’. Grady thinks James is a suicide risk so keeps him with him – along with the dead dog. It eventually dawns on him that James is a compulsive liar and a total liability. His fellow student Hannah (Katie Holmes) has a thing for Grady but he’s not into her which makes life at his house tricky – she’s renting a room there. Walter sends the police for James when he figures where the MM goods have gone. What happens to Grady’s new book manuscript and the car is just cringeworthy … This is so great in every department – the very texture of the emotions is in every gesture and expression, something that occurs when writing, performance and staging are in perfect sync. Hilarious, compassionate and endlessly watchable. And for anyone looking to complete their picture collection of Michael Douglas’ abject masculinity on film, there’s the image of him standing on the porch in a woman’s dressing gown – something to knock that Basic Instinct v-neck into a cocked hat. Cherishable.

Home for the Holidays (1995)

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The holiday movie is a game of two halves: go for comedy and you’re swerving from true sentimental meaning;  go for drama and you’re avoiding the utterly futile fun of bringing (invariably dysfunctional) families together. So the comedy-drama is the middle road of choice and that’s what director Jodie Foster steers through here with a script by the fascinating and wayward WD Richter (adapted from a short story by Chris Radant). Newly fired Holly Hunter is the divorced mother of a teenage girl who flies to Baltimore for the Thanksgiving gathering back home with her folks Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning: her awful sister Cynthia Stevenson has already arrived complete with husband Steve Guttenberg and teenage children;  her gay brother Robert Downey Jr shows up with his new friend, Dylan McDermott, which is a mystery since he’s in a long-term relationship; and there is (of course) an eccentric aunt, Geraldine Chaplin. The situation descends into the anticipated back-biting, blame and viciousness while it becomes clear that Downey  has actually married his boyfriend and McDermott is there to be introduced to Hunter. The great cast (including my beloved Austin Pendleton!) works as an insurance policy against the predictability:  when Foster was given the script which she then produced through her own company as her sophomore outing she and Richter worked on the material to more closely reflect her own experiences. What is it Tolstoy said about families? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. A lot of turkey was eaten during this production and quite a bit of it winds up onscreen. Happy Thanksgiving!

The Judge (2014)

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It is probably more than coincidence that the antagonist in The Judge (Dobkin, 2014) is Robert Duvall, Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962).  Here he plays the title character, a smalltown and self-righteous official called Joseph Palmer who winds up in bigtime trouble the night his beloved wife is buried and has to be (highly reluctantly) defended by son Hank, Robert Downey Jr., the film’s producer, a criminal lawyer in Chicago whose wife is divorcing him.  He says of his position, “Everybody wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in the bathtub.” It is a long tale, well told, with hints of incest, lost love, and plenty of prolix speeches from Hank, a Downey specialty overindulged somewhat here. Massachusetts stands in very prettily for Hoosier country, Indiana, while the family’s secrets are steadily unfolded, one by one. This patriarchal drama brings together two of the screen’s powerhouse performers, with the extravagantly gifted Downey turning in a mighty performance opposite not just the other legendary Robert D, but Billy Bob Thornton, with whom Duvall has also shared some impressive time in Sling Blade (1996) and The Apostle (1997). This is a long, cool drink of a movie with a closing sequence that suggests it might be a third franchise for Downey. The jury is out.