Steve Martin has been starring in comedies for over 30 years, and they range from great (The Jerk) to decent (L.A. Story) to forgettable (HouseSitter) to downright awful (Bringing Down the House). Seeing as how the second half of Martin's career seems defined by broad and sappy "family" comedies, most of his strongest films come from the first half, when he was appealing to older audiences -- and, frankly, being funnier.
Keep in mind that these aren't necessarily the best Steve Martin movies -- that list might include dramas like The Spanish Prisoner or Shopgirl -- just his funniest.
It's somewhat fitting that Steve Martin's first outing remains his funniest. Essentially a variation on the persona Martin had come up with in his stand-up act, The Jerk features the comic as Navin R. Johnson, born a "poor black child" in Mississippi. There's no real plot to speak of -- just a series of (mis)adventures with Johnson taking a series of jobs, acquiring and losing wealth, joining a carnival and falling in love.
What the movie has going for it -- and why it remains Steve Martin's funniest -- is an absolute anything-goes approach to comedy. It's a heady mix of high and lowbrow humor that both announced Martin as a comedy film star and holds up today as a classic. It was also reportedly a favorite of director Stanley Kubrick.
For both Martin and co-star Eddie Murphy, Bowfinger marks the funniest movie either had starred in for a decade. Martin plays Bobby Bowfinger, a Grade-Z movie producer that cons some Hollywood fringe-dwellers into making a movie with megastar Kit Ramsey (Murphy). The catch? Ramsey doesn't know he's in the movie. Bowfinger's solution is to enlist nebbish video store clerk Jiff Ramsey (Murphy again, in the funnier of his two roles) to act as Kit's "stunt man."
Martin wrote the screenplay for Bowfinger, and it's a perfect combination of both the comic's smart and silly sides. It's the rare satire of the movie industry that isn't too pleased with itself. It's also one of the most underrated comedies of the '90s.
Seeing as this is the second film on the list to be directed by Frank Oz (alongside Bowfinger) -- and that another two were directed by Carl Reiner -- there seems to be a lesson here. Martin needs to work with the right directors for his comedies to work. For proof, consider that the same director, Shawn Levy, is responsible for both Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther. Or that Adam Shankman directed both Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen 2. See what I mean? Martin obviously favors repeating directors. He just needs to be sure they're the right ones.
Anyway, Scoundrels pairs him with Michael Caine as two con men trying to bilk Glenne Headly out of $50,000. Martin does some of his best physical and character work.