Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 08, 2006
The Pink Panther
Starring Steve Martin and Jean Reno. Directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Len Blum and Steve Martin. Rated PG-13.
Jacques Off

Steve Martin plays Inspector Clouseau. Big surprise: It doesnít work.


Speaking of long-lived cinematic institutions, the Pink Panther series has been around even longer than the Merchant-Ivory partnership (see above). The original movie came out in 1964, but a minor character in the film wound up taking over the series: Peter Sellersí Inspector Jacques Clouseau, whose name has become synonymous the world over with incompetent investigators. Since then there have been many pretenders to Sellersí throne, the first being Sellers himself, who blatantly phoned in his performances in the later films. After his death, there was an ill-advised continuation of the series in 1993 with Roberto Benigni. This was back when Benigni was actually funny, so casting him represented at least a chance for success.

On the other hand, what possessed the powers that be to make them think Steve Martin could do the job? He stars in a whole new version of The Pink Panther, and heís so miscast that itís perversely fascinating to watch. Great physical comedian though he is, Martin is a performer who consistently goes out of his way to make himself look ridiculous. That makes him exactly the wrong actor for Clouseau, who never sees himself as anything other than a brilliant detective. Sellers played the part with the same jaded, unsmiling, world-weary demeanor that weíve seen from a million movie and tv cops, which made it all the funnier when Clouseau accidentally electrocuted himself or got his hand caught in a door. Martin has nothing like that kind of gravitas, and his Clouseau is spastic and effortful. Bill Murray might have pulled this off, and an even better choice would have been the French actor who spends much of this movie standing next to Martin: Jean Reno, whoís played lots of jaded, world-weary cops in previous movies yet has also done accomplished work as a farceur. Itís easy to see him as Clouseau, but instead heís cast as the inspectorís sidekick and given little to do except react to his partnerís wackiness.

Of course, the earlier Pink Panther films werenít all about Sellers. They were tremendously funny because of director Blake Edwardsí peerless talent for slapstick. Most filmmakers wouldnít withstand that comparison, and Shawn Levy proves no exception. The director of Big Fat Liar and Cheaper by the Dozen isnít a total liability, staging some gags that really work. (The one with the cyclist, for example. You know Clouseau will inadvertently hit him in the head, but you donít see the nearby crepe stand until the cyclist crashes into it, making it go up in a ball of flame.) Still, for every joke that hits home, there are about three that are ruined by their obviousness ó when Clouseau starts inspecting two ceramic jugs, you know heís going to end up with his hands stuck in them.

Remakes and sequels are easy targets for fans and critics who wonder whether Hollywood has any interest in original stories anymore. Even so, itís not necessarily a bad idea to make another installment of The Pink Panther. In movies at least, idiot cops are always good for a laugh. Itís the talent involved, and not the story, that makes this comedy such a misbegotten affair.

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