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Pink Panther, The (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 10 February 2006
The first gag in the new “The Pink Panther” clearly establishes the differences between Steve Martin’s Inspector Clouseau and Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. The bumpling French cop is the passenger in a police car zipping through a small town. He puts a blue bubble light on top of the car, but as it sweeps around a corner, the light flies off and beans an old lady. In a Sellers Pink Panther outing, the light would have beaned Clouseau.

Sellers’ Clouseau was, primarily, his own victim. His clumsiness, errors in judgment, unquenchable enthusiasm and lack of foresight usually brought disaster on himself. Sure, his maladroit efforts often had innocent bystanders (or his increasingly deranged superior, Dreyfus, the sublime Herbert Lom). But in this new movie—which has sat on the shelf for several months—Clouseau generally, but hardly always, breezes through without a mark, often without realizing he’s spreading disaster in his wake.

It’s curious that Steve Martin would try this, but there’s precedent in two areas: a few years back, he starred in “Sgt. Bilko,” an attempt to bring Phil Silvers’ great sitcom character to the big screen without, of course, the late Silvers. Although Martin was somewhat better than many expected, still the primarily failing was that on TV, Bilko was based on Silvers’ entire career as a comic; he was a summation of all the fast-talking con men Silvers had played in movies and on TV for years.

Martin isn’t the first person other than Peter Sellers to play the bumbling French police inspector. In the third movie featuring him, “Inspector Clouseau,” Alan Arkin played the title role. The movie wasn’t good, and Arkin wasn’t a good fit for the role. In one of the several Pink Panther sequels, after plastic surgery, Clouseau is played briefly (but well) by an unexpected Roger Moore. So Martin isn’t leaving the first set of footprints after Peter Sellers.

But he’s only intermittently funny, partly due to the limp direction of Shawn Levy, who never saw a gag he can’t overstate. There’s no feeling of the visual style that Blake Edwards brought to his Clouseau movies (tellingly, Arkin’s “Inspector Clouseau” was directed by someone else), no sense of elegance that Clouseau keeps threatening to reduce to rags and tatters. It must be admitted, of course, that not all of the Sellers outings worked as well as they should. The best were “A Shot in the Dark,” a genuine comedy classic with Sellers at his best—and Edwards, too. “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” was good, too, but the rest are extremely uneven. However, when the gags centering on Sellers work, they can leave you weak with laughter, hardly able to catch a breath; Steve Martin just isn’t that kind of comic actor, and the best stuff here elicits chuckles, not belly-laughs.
The plot is entirely new, owing nothing to the other Clouseau movies other than some characters. Here, a famous soccer coach’s team wins some kind of major match. As he goes out to salute the patrons with his Pink Panther diamond ring (which looks like a glass doorknob), he suddenly drops dead, felled by a poisoned dart, and the ring is missing.
The police are expected to clear the case up pronto. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline), who occasionally narrates, has a brilliant idea, which I didn’t quite follow: he’ll put the most inept French cop in charge of the investigation. This is somehow supposed to shield Dreyfus, but it made little sense to me.

Until now, Clouseau’s destructiveness has been confined to a small French village, but he’s given all of Paris as his playground, plus Ponton (Jean Reno), assigned by Dreyfus to keep an eye on the preening Clouseau. Nicole (Emily Mortimer), a secretary at police headquarters, catches Clouseau’s attention. The script (by Martin and Len Blum) tries to whip a little sympathy, or maybe pity, for Clouseau, since he sighs to Ponton that he has no success with women. (Sellers’ Clouseu at least began married to Capucine.)

Also figuring into the story are dazzling entertainer Xania (Beyoncé Knowles), who turns up throughout the movie—Clouseau and Ponton even follow her to New York—but really has little to do. She starts several songs but completes none of them. Soccer trainer Yuri (Henry Czenry) also arouses Clouseau’s suspicions, as does briefly-seen squillionaire Larocque (Roger Rees). Truth be told, Clouseau suspects almost everyone other than the victim himself, and he’s none too sure of him.

The movie ambles along, tossing in a gag about a globe (not the Sellers globe gag), bicyclists, itty bitty cars, and so forth. Sellers gradually developed a baroque accent so weird that even other Frenchies couldn’t understand him. Martin makes a few little stabs in that direction, such as calling France “Fwawnce,” and has Clouseau take ineffective English lessons on how to pronounce “hamburger.” (He misses how many French really do pronounce it—“amburGAIR”)

Some gags work and are memorable; where Sellers adopted bizarre disguises—a hunchback, Toulouse-Latrec, etc.—Martin tries for camouflage (as a drape, as a wall) when he sneaks into a big state blowout with Ponton. Naturally, Dreyfus is the target of many of Clouseau’s blunders. So is the unbilled Clive Owen as Agent 006. This movie was made when the new James Bond hadn’t been chosen, and Clive Owen was thought by many to be a likely choice. I have to admit he sure looks good in his tux and sardonic smile; I suspect Eon Productions made the wrong choice.

But too many gags are limp and repetitive; they don’t have the cockamamie ingenuity of the Sellers/Edwards Clouseau movies. But mostly, the difference is in the Clouseaus. Peter Sellers was only incidentally a comic; he was primarily an actor, a great actor, and his specialities were verbal humor and farce. He BECAME Clouseau down to his bone marrow, and thereby was almost eerily convincing. But Steve Martin is primarily a comic, and in a movie like this he’s all too eager to let us know he’s funny. Sellers’s Clouseau tried to hide his funniness; Martin exults in it—creating a kind of boundary between character and actor. We never see Inspector Clouseau doing stuff—until the very unexpected, very welcome climax, where Martin establishes clearly that HIS Clouseau is NOT Sellers’ Clouseau. But most of the time, we see Steve Martin having fun pretending to be Inspector Clouseau; with Sellers, we saw just Clouseau.

As with all the other Pink Panther movies, the new “Pink Panther” features animated titles, pitting the droll, suave Pink Panther himself against scurrying little Inspector Clouseau (with white hair). It’s pretty good stuff, but not up to those insanely great “Pink Panther Strikes Again” titles that were the work of Richard Williams. (Usually the pretty good titles were the work of DePatie-Freleng, who also did the series of short Pink Panther cartoons.) The titles here are by Kurtz & Friends.

Blessedly, the movie features Henry Mancini’s score for the title sequence of the original “The Pink Panther.” There’s still never been a movie compose are hip, cool and elegant as Henry Mancini; his stuff just doesn’t date. The rest of the score is quite ordinary, the work of Christopher Beck. All other technical aspects are fine.

In interviews, Steve Martin has said he hopes “The Pink Panther” really takes off as he’d like another try at the character. The movie is being released in the part of the year where it really doesn’t have much competition, so it’s likely to open very well. But it’s also likely to leave audiences, even those who laugh a lot, wanting more, feeling a bit disappointed, a tad let down. And the reasons are simple to state: this wasn’t directed by Blake Edwards, and it didn’t star Peter Sellers.

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