It’s almost disappointing that The Pink Panther isn’t worse than it is. Oh, it’s bad, all right — bad enough that my fiancé, who had gone purely out of loyalty, threatened to dump me as we were leaving the theater — but it’s not as bad as Sony’s ominous release-date shuffle and the repellent turn-off-your-cell-phones pre-show ads had led me to assume, not so bad I had to walk out in the middle or close my eyes and cover my ears. If it were that bad, I could rant about its awfulness and maybe work out my frustration. As it is, I can only shrug my shoulders and bemoan the state of Steve Martin’s career.
For admirers of the original series, the issue with a new Pink Panther movie is how much it will disgrace Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards’ legacy, but I’ve never been a particular fan of the franchise. I’ve seen the first one and parts of some others and, while I can’t say I really disliked them, neither did they rock my world. For me, it’s all about Steve Martin, and what a sorry state of affairs it is to see him following up a thoughtful, grown-up film like Shopgirl with Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and now this nonsense. To be sure, Martin was asking for it. He co-wrote the script (with Len Blum, whose last screenplay was Howard Stern’s Private Parts), and he decided to give this obnoxious performance — no one can be coerced to go this far over the top. Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau wasn’t exactly subtle, particularly as the series wore on, but even he would have been embarrassed by what Martin does here. I walked into the movie feeling badly for him for being stuck in it, but within 15 minutes my sympathy had shifted to the audience (which, for a 7:15 opening-night show at Boston’s most popular multiplex, was awfully sparse).
Though set in the present, the new Pink Panther reaches back before the events of the original series to show how Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline here, Herbert Lom in the originals) brings Inspector Clouseau, formerly an inept provincial gendarme, to Paris, where he can be inept on the world stage. The idea is to have him botch a murder investigation so badly that Dreyfus can swoop in and be the hero, thus securing himself the Medal of Honor, for which he’s been nominated seven times but has never won. Kline, who has both some experience playing a dotty Frenchman (in 1995’s French Kiss) and a wider range than Martin, might seem like a natural fit for the Clouseau role, but his performance as Dreyfus is simply mystifying. He starts off, naturally enough, with a French accent, then sounds inexplicably English, then American, then English again. How did no one notice this? There are several dialect coaches credited — were they all at lunch when Kline shot his scenes? Martin’s accent is far more consistent, but I wish it weren’t. He’d be a lot less annoying if it faltered once in a while — it’s so gratingly overdrawn I could barely stand to listen to him. Of course, even if he were mute, there would still be the matter of his maddeningly smug demeanor, which would be completely insufferable were it not for the satisfaction of seeing him frequently in agony from one pratfall or another.
To keep an eye on (and play straight man to) Clouseau, Dreyfus appoints Gendarme Gilbert Ponton (Jean Reno), a no-nonsense Paris cop who has the equanimity to take Clouseau’s antics in stride. As Sellers’ crafty bumbling enabled him to steal the first Pink Panther from its intended star, David Niven, Reno walks off with this one by the simple strategy of being the only credible human being onscreen. His low-key performance could be mistaken for phoning it in — or maybe I’m mistaking phoning it in for a low-key performance — but for whatever reason he’s the film’s most charismatic presence (with the possible exception of an uncredited cameo that is too much fun to spoil). His only other competition comes from the murder victim’s gorgeous pop-star girlfriend Xania (played by gorgeous pop star Beyonce Knowles), whom Clouseau immediately discounts as a suspect due to her sexiness. Xania may or may not be a killer, but she definitely has something to hide. She feigns a crush on Clouseau to distract him, or maybe we’re supposed to believe she’s actually attracted to him; either way, 60-year-old Martin’s attempts to seduce the 24-year-old Knowles are just as creepy to watch as 53-year-old Niven’s googoo eyes at 25-year-old Claudia Cardinale were in the original.
Martin’s script borrows heavily from the earlier films while also adding some elements of his own. He sets up several effective sight gags and gives himself a few good one-liners (which have the absurdist tone of other Martin material and thus don’t always fit the character), but he also writes running gags that aren’t funny the first time and sinks to the pointless crudity of an extended fart joke. There are about six terrible jokes for every good one, and much of the material that does work is deflated by being dragged out past the point of audience patience. The film’s director is Shawn Levy, who previously directed Martin in the first Cheaper by the Dozen, which you’d think would have given Martin sufficient caution. Levy just doesn’t know when to cut a scene before it goes on too long, and if he gave the actors any direction at all, it could only have been along the lines of “Make it more obnoxious!”
This is the fourth attempt to revive the series without Sellers, which raises the question: Why? When a film’s success is so clearly tied to the audience’s response to a particular actor, why try to win the public over again — particularly after three previous failures — when the final product, however good it might turn out, can only alienate the purists and bemuse the uninitiated? Sure, studio executives often insist on a pre-sold product for marketing purposes, but is The Pink Panther really an entity that can sell tickets based on name-recognition alone? The teens that make up the bulk of box-office sales are too young to remember the original films; they know the Pink Panther as a cartoon character, if that. And any fans of the Sellers films who were willing to give Martin the benefit of the doubt have probably been put off by the lame ads and the scheduling shifts.
The last three comedies Martin starred in (Bringing Down the House and the Cheaper by the Dozen movies) made plenty of money, and he still has enough clout that he was able to get Shopgirl greenlit and made the way he wanted it (for better and for worse), so what’s the deal here? Are all these crappy remakes the devil’s barter that Martin has to make to get his own projects off the ground? If that’s the case, Picasso at the Lapin Agile had better be damn good.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Pink Panther / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()