A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
THE PINK PANTHER j

2006, PG-13, 92 mins.

Clouseau: Steve Martin / Dreyfus: Kevin Kline / Xania: Beyonce Knowles / Ponton: Jean Reno / Nicole: Emily Mortimer / Yuri: Henry Czerny / Cherie: Kristin Chenoweth / Larocque: Roger Rees 

Directed by Shawn Levy /  Written by Len Blum and Steve Martin /  Based on the Pink Panther films of Blake Edwards

Something dawned on me within about one minute of watching Steve Martin parade around in the new film version of THE PINK PANTHER.  

The immortal role of the comically clumsy and hilariously inept French inspector, Jacque Clouseau, carries just far too much baggage for even a great comic talent like Martin to take in and mould into something unique on his own.  

Of course, I am referring to the way the late, great Peter Sellers put his own droll and zany stamp on the persona and carved out what I think is one of the all-time great comic icons of 20th Century cinema.  Much like Chaplin’s Little Champ, the role of the inhumanly lumbering and moronic Clouseau did not inhabit the actor so much as the actor inhabited it.   Sellers simply did not play the role – he became the roll, so much so that I merely can’t see anyone as an acceptable substitute for him.  Nope.  Sorry.  No dice.

That’s really the big problem with the new prequel to the entire PINK PANTHER series – Steve Martin observably cannot erase my fond memories of Sellers in the role.  Now, this is not to take away anything from Martin’s madcap and screwball physical edge he's demonstrated in many terrific past comedies (his role in ALL OF ME remains one of the funniest performances of the 1980’s).  Yet, seeing him with that pencil thin moustache, that light khaki overcoat, and that overwrought and hammy French accent just rang utterly false.  Instead of inhabiting the role (again, an impossible task if you consider the large shoes he has to fill) he basically does his best version of Sellers playing Clouseau.  Ultimately, what we are left with in this new PINK PANTHER is something seemingly redundant and meaningless.   I felt constantly aware of the fact that Martin was playing the role.  I simply did not find myself losing myself in his performance the same way I did with Sellers.  Martin is riffing on Sellers’ genius.  Sellers created the masterfully and incalculably useless persona all on his own.  Martin does not.  See what I mean?

Clouseau was such an amazingly realized comic creation under Sellers that deserves ample comparison with the other classic mustached character Chaplin made everlasting.  What made Sellers’ performance in all of the PINK PANTHER films (even the dreadful ones) so wonderful was his indescribable tunnel vision.  He thought of himself as a suave, sophisticated, and intelligent sleuth of the Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlow vein, but there was just one problem – he was not only a incompetent police officer, he was a stupendously incompetent officer.  This is where Sellers incredible slapstick skill and comic timing came in, where he would – oftentimes unknowingly – cause absolute havoc, chaos, and destruction during even the most simple of interrogations. 

There have been almost too many PINK PANTHER films to even keep track of.  First there was the original PINK PANTHER of 1964 that had Clouseau on the sidelines as a secondary character.  Sellers cemented his reputation in the role with its follow-up, A SHOT IN THE DARK, which goes on a very, very short list of the funniest films I have ever seen.  Oddly enough, Alan Arkin would then play Clouseau in the largely forgotten 1968 film INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU, but Sellers would return to the role that only he knew how to play in 1974's THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER.  The latter film mentioned still showcased Sellers’ abilities to garner a laugh with the least amount of effort, but the series was showing signs of weakness by this point, often recycling routines from the past films. 

Other mediocre sequels followed, like 1978’s REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER, and 1982’s THE TRIAL OF THE PINK PANTHER, a film that Sellers is still probably rolling over in his grave about (it was filmed after his death and incorporated scenes from his past films!)  Obviously, the studio felt the need to further milk this once lucrative property long past its expiration date with THE CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER in 1983 and with Roberto Benigni playing the son of Clouseau in 1993's THE SON OF THE PINK PANTHER.  The last few films made a mockery of the legend and memory of Sellers’ work and – ironically – only reinforced what an indelible creation he forged.

I had very similar responses to seeing Martin as Clouseau.  I honestly don’t feel that Martin (also a co-writer on the film) was trying to do a disservice to Sellers and other PINK PANTHER films by adopting the role himself.  I truly do believe that Martin – as a comic actor – holds Sellers and some of the PINK PANTHER films in the highest respect.  However, perhaps the best way for Martin to have paid tribute to Sellers and his films would have been to sponsor a tribute to the actor and send his films around the country on a National release.  His yearning and desire to portray Clouseau in the new film is not so much offensive and tasteless (what comedian would not want to play a role they hold in high esteem?) as it is completely unnecessary.  Consider: what would you rather want to view – A NIGHT AT THE OPERA with The Marx Brothers or a remake of the film with Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Ben Stiller playing The Marx Brothers?  Again…do you see what I mean?

The new PANTHER has a title card stating that it was “inspired by the PINK PANTHER films of Blake Edwards.”  That’s a highly fair credit to give Edwards as this new film is basically regurgitating his films note for note and gag for gag.  As mentioned, this is a prequel, but not in the strictest sense.  It takes place before the original 1964 PINK PANTHER and is kind of an origin story of Clouseau, but the film is situated in the present day.  It does manage to generate some decent laughs at the expense of Clouseau in the modern technologically advanced 21st century.  When asked if he is ever lonely, he deadpans, “Not since I discovered the Internet.”  More chuckles are generated when his cell phone goes off, interrupting a key interrogation, to which he matter-of-factly states, “That is my downloaded ring tone going off.”

This is the film that shows how Chief Inspector Dreyfus (who had an incredibly funny role in the old PINK PANTHER films and was played by the kooky Herbert Lom) discovers a way to pick the most ineffectual simpleton to solve the newest, high profile murder case that is rocking the nation.  Why does he want the most bubbling officer, you may ask?  Well, he is under pressure to solve the case, seeing as he is up for a Medal of Honor and could easily persuade voters if he solves this crucial case.  His inspiration comes in hiring Clouseau to be an unknowing decoy that would detract attention away from his own investigation. 

Much like Sellers’ Clouseau, Martin’s Clouseau makes Lieutenant Frank Debin from Police Squad look like a detective on the level of Batman.  It’s so entirely startling how much damage this little, innocuous man can cause in his wake, even with simply gestures like a handshake or a step into a room.  When he first meets Dreyfus its classic Clouseau.  He reaches out to introduce himself to him and – within what seems like seconds – he manages to stab Dreyfus in the chest with the pin from his badge.  He also manages, during that same visit, to cause a number of injuries to “friendly civilians” in the form of old ladies crossing the street, a group of biking enthusiasts, and…well…you get the picture. 

Dreyfus seems to survive his first meeting with Clouseau long enough to assign a partner to him, Ponton (played by Jean Reno, who knows that the best way to be an effective foil to Clouseau is to play his role absolutely straight).  Clouseau gives Ponton a few modest instructions – watch his every move so he can learn something about real police work and to fend off his martial art attacks at the least bit of notice so that he can sharpen his defense skills.  Ponton, I guess, fills the void that Cato has left.  You may recall that Cato – in the original films – was Clouseau’s loyal manservant who would attack him at a moment’s notice to help Clouseau with his martial arts training.  Of course, the gag there was that the only way Clouseau could even beat Cato was by hitting him from behind…or maybe, being a trusted manservant, Cato let him beat him…hmmmmm.

Needless to say, the plot kind of meanders from one manufactured pratfall to the next where Clouseau demonstrates with cunning precision and timing what a buffoon and walking train wreck he really is.  I guess that, on a primal level, both the best and the worst of the PANTHER films owed their comedic existence to the large-scale slapstick set pieces that Clouseau engages in.  This new film does have a few that made me giggle.  I did like the one scene where Clouseau loses what every aging police detective must need before bedding a beautiful witness – his Viagra pill.  Not only does he lose the pill, but he also in the process manages to set the hotel that he is in on fire and cause a major flood at the same time. 

There is also one inspired moment where Clouseau, after interrogating a musician, asks if his sound booth is, indeed, sound proof.  He tests it with humorous results.  I also liked a moment where, during a brief visit to New York, Clouseau discovers a newfound love for a great, All-American food item.  There is also one very funny sequence that involves a particular Brit actor that was once considered to take over the roll of James Bond after Pierce Bronson and instead seems to lampoon that character here for good effect. 

Yet….gee whiz….for the few times I did laugh during the film, I later felt completely resentful.  There is no doubt that, by watching Martin, you can tell that he knows exactly what he is doing and he surely knows how to play a physical scene for hilarious effect.  He has a breezy and carefree charisma as the dumb officer, and he certainly is not giving a wretched comic performance.  I will give Martin points for at least trying to be his former, screwball self again in a film.  Yet, maybe he could have achieved this in a different film that did not have me constantly envisioning another actor playing his role.  Long before the final credits rolled by, I found myself engaging in Martin as a humorous presence in the film, but I could not – for one minute – buy into him as Clouseau.  Even look at Kevin Kline, who is capable of being one of the funniest men in the movies (remember A FISH CALLED WANDA, anyone?) and even he is completely wasted for comic effect as Dreyfus.  Herbert Lom was cheerfully insane with his performance whereas Kline seems bored by his.  Much like how some people feel about Sean Connery as 007, I just have a painfully difficult time envisioning anyone but Sellers as Clouseau.  Again, he was Clouseau; Martin is playing Sellers playing Clouseau.  Again…see what I mean?

The new PINK PANTHER is not a work of desecration of the memory of the classic Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers films.  Instead, it’s a superfluous and completely uncalled for revisiting of a series that never needed to be further explored in the first place.  Martin has the prerequisite brand of inane silliness for the part of the hopelessly dumb police Inspector, but he seems as narrow-minded as Clouseau himself to notice that playing the role was an exercise in futility.  Sure, he hams it up as much as we expect him to, but ultimately what we are left with in this version of THE PINK PANTHER is a burning desire to run home, pop in a DVD copy of A SHOT IN THE DARK, and watch an Inspector Clouseau film the way it was meant to be watched.  I am quite sure that if Martin viewed that film after sitting through his own sophomoric work here, then he would clearly smack himself upside the head and scream, “in a rit of fealous jage!” 

  H O M E