Steve Martin in The Pink Panther.

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Feb. 10 2006 4:03 PM

The Death of Inspector Clouseau

Steve Martin's uninspired Pink Panther.

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Steve Martin in The Pink Panther

Let us now ponder the mystery of Steve Martin's career. In the past decade or so, it's diverged into two discrete and contradictory channels: There's Steve Martin the auteur (of three novels, a collection of plays, and "serious" film scripts like Shopgirl or the upcoming Picasso at the Lapin Agile, both based on his own work); and Steve Martin the lowbrow, the shameless purveyor of crap like Cheaper by the Dozen, Parts 1 and 2, Father of the Bride, Parts 1 and 2, or Bringing Down the House, the Martin/Queen Latifah race comedy, which has mercifully stopped at Part 1 (so far.)

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

A colleague of mine tells me that his 6-year-old daughter, who's very keen to see Martin's latest comedy, The Pink Panther, refers to it as "The Pink Pander." The kid displays remarkable critical acumen. The film, directed by Shawn Levy, who was also behind both Cheaper by the Dozen movies, falls squarely into the second, crappy category of the Martin oeuvre. Yet there's something strangely ambitious about the project, too, if only because of the enormous hubris of undertaking to remake the Pink Panther franchise.

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Not, mind you, because the original films are any good—with the partial exception of the first one, The Pink Panther (1963), they hold up poorly to a second viewing. Blake Edwards is a clumsy, unintuitive director, and seen now, the old Panther movies feel leadenly paced, depressingly cynical, and full of disquieting racial and sexual stereotypes. But they contain, at their molten core, the rich and strange performances of Peter Sellers. As the accident-prone imbecile Inspector Clouseau, Sellers is almost frighteningly funny: His mangled accent and masochistic pratfalls seem to tap into some inner source of sadness and rage. One of the most striking qualities of Sellers as Clouseau is that—especially in the later installments of the series, as he grew increasingly resentful of this unchallenging cash cow of a role—he no longer cares about being liked by the audience. His French accent grows incomprehensibly gnarled, his relation to the other actors increasingly remote, and by his final fullinstallment, Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), he seems to be inhabiting his own parallel movie.

There's no danger of that happening with the Pink Pander, Steve Martin, whose version of Clouseau is nothing if not professional. Except in one scene, when an American dialogue coach tries and fails to teach him to pronounce the word "hamburger," Martin wisely curbs the temptation to impersonate Sellers. But he also fails to offer anything new, any reason to resurrect the series or the character, beyond the desire to scare up a few laughs and, I guess, forklifts of cash. Martin's careful, at times funny, but utterly unnecessary rendering of Clouseau raises the question that haunts every remake: Why? The brand-name recognition must be very faint by now in the memories of the audience at whom this movie is aimed (and who, in the screening I attended, were finding it pretty funny, at least the fart jokes).

Still, The Pink Panther isn't anywhere near as bad as it could be. There are a few verbal gags that recall the Lewis Carroll-esque absurdity of early Steve Martin routines: "Don't you think it's a coincidence that the victim's body fell perfectly within the chalk outline?" And there's at least one laugh-out-loud visual gag involving Martin's and Jean Reno's donning of trompe l'oeil bodysuits that blend in with the marble walls of a ballroom they're trying to infiltrate.

The Pink Panther's MacGuffin—the theft of a giant pink diamond from the finger of a murdered soccer coach—is so negligible as to be unworthy of summarization. It's the flimsiest of pretexts for a cops-and-robbers plot that has Clouseau and his bodyguard sidekick, Ponton (Jean Reno), dashing around the globe in pursuit of Xania (Beyoncé Knowles), the victim's girlfriend. Their clueless journey is overseen by the self-important Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, who's allowed to exercise a tenth of his comic potential—maybe he should have played Clouseau).

But the slightness of the storyline wouldn't be a problem if the movie took on its project of reviving the Panther series of with any real wit, originality, or joy (think of Mike Myers, sinking his fake yellow scraggleteeth into the role of Austin Powers). Instead, this movie leaves us with the stale whiff of fake nostalgia and something even more odoriferous: the smell of money.