Before I start this review I need to correct something. Not long ago I said Steve Martin’s career was headed into the failure of Chevy Chase territory. I was wrong about that. The difference between them is that while Steve Martin has devolved into a once funny guy who makes bad movies for big money, he still has something. Chevy Chase doesn’t. Whatever it once was that made Chevy funny, he’s lost it. Steve Martin on the other hand still has talent; the problem with his recent work is simply where he chooses to use it.
This weekend he puts his formidable comedic skills to work on a prequel to the classic 1964 comedy The Pink Panther. His prequel is also named The Pink Panther. I guess that’s better than going with The Pink Panther: The Phantom Menace. Martin steps into the trench coat once filled by the greatness of Peter Sellers, and plays Inspector Jacques Clouseau. But Steve’s Clouseau is not Peter’s Clouseau. Steve plays the character as a sort of weird mix between Austin Powers and Ernest P. Worrell. It’s funny, but he’s not exactly our beloved Inspector.
The real problem with this unnecessary, Sellersless revisit to the classic Pink Panther series, is the script and not the actors behind the characters. It opens as all the Pink Panther movies have: with a robbery. The Pink Panther diamond is owned by a world famous soccer coach, who, after winning a big match is murdered. Missing from the corpse is the fabulous Pink Panther diamond, which he wore on a gigantic ring around his finger. Also missing is any of the fun heist footage from the previous movies, in its place are snapping cameras, celebrities, and media whoring. Not exactly an auspicious beginning.
Clouseau is a lowly detective in a small French town, brought in by France’s Chief Inspector (Kevin Kline) to investigate the murder and theft. But unknown to Clouseau he’s only there to distract the media, while the Chief Inspector solves the mystery behind the scenes. As distractions go, bumbling, stumbling, destructive Clouseau is a pretty good one.
As Clouseau embarks on his investigation, his antics get laughs, there’s no denying it. But the script written by Steve Martin and Len Blum doesn’t provide enough of them, and doesn’t leave enough room for the kind of comedic ballet performed by Sellers in the old movies. The best moments in the original Pink Panthers came when Sellers stayed on screen too long, in those extended sequences where things just keep getting worse and worse for him, where director Blake Edwards pushed the scene well beyond a reasonable length to leave him hanging out there in the open. Sellers and Edwards never settled for the obvious gag, whenever you thought you knew where it was going they took a left turn, and then came back to the obvious thing when you were no longer expecting it.
This Pink Panther has little of that subtlety, and in fact it’s not so much about physical comedy the way the old movies were. Instead, it’s a very talky movie, with the humor coming from silly innuendo or continual pokes at Clouseau’s outrageous accent. It’s enough to deliver some genuine laughs here and there, but there’s never that stand out scene where the gags build and build and build on top of each other to get the audience rolling in the aisles. It’s also a bit uncomfortable, since Martin’s Clouseau is almost too self-aware. Sellers’ take on the character was that of a man completely oblivious to everything around him. Martin’s Inspector slips in and out of consciousness: sometimes he’s an oblivious idiot and sometimes he understands what’s happening to him. Worse though, is that Steve’s Clouseau actually solves a mystery on his own. Sellers’ Clouseau succeeded only through dumb, stupid luck. He would never have been capable of that.
It’s almost unfair to compare this to those original Pink Panther movies, but by slapping the name on this new one Steve Martin and company have invited it. This is nowhere near the funny quality of those old movies, but it isn’t a total disaster either. There are some spots of big boredom and some bad performances mixed in, but Steve Martin’s Pink Panther will make you laugh more than a little, and from a comedy I guess that’s all you can ask. Peter Sellers funny without Peter Sellers was too much to hope for.