I went to the local AMC Theater to watch the Steve Martin "Pink Panther" prequel today. Not, I hasten to add, because I expected the movie to be any good. To be honest, I expected it to be absolutely, unutterably awful. But I had grown up on the old "Pink Panther" films with Peter Sellers, and a voice from my childhood more or less commanded me to see the latest entry in the series.
I was wrong.
"The Pink Panther" 2006 is not a particularly good movie. The humor often lacks inventiveness, there are any number of missed opportunities in the script, and the direction is more along the lines of something made for television than something made for the bigscreen.
But though it is not a particularly good movie, neither is it a particularly bad one. It has an appealing freshness that keeps it afloat even during its dryest stretches. Many of the actors give enjoyable performances. Many of the gags are quite funny. Most of all, it feels like a genuine extension of the old 1960's/1970's series, capturing the spirit of the old series in a way that makes this a very hard film to dislike.
It begins with a genuinely entertaining precredit sequence, which tidily delivers the basic set-up of the film. In the style of a documentary, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) sits at his desk, facing the camera, and recalls for us the exact nature of the events leading to his promotion of hapless French policeman Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin). Around Dreyfus' narration, tiny flashbacks show us exactly what Dreyfus is telling us: Clouseau was a complete disaster of a small-town policeman, an inept imbecile with no investigative talent, no prospect of advancement, and a knack for turning the most minor situation into an utter disaster.
"I often hear stories of the activities of city policemen," Dreyfus tells us. "Clouseau was the source of many... stories." But when a French football (soccer) coach is murdered at the climactic moment of a well-attended game, and his ring - holding the valuable Pink Panther diamond atop its base - vanishes at that very same game, Dreyfus is faced with a dilemma: the case will attract hideous amounts of media attention, which will impede his ability to solve it.
What Dreyfus needs is a decoy. Some dull-witted, by-the-book plodder who will fumble the case in public while he and a team of highly-trained specialists actually solve it in private. When the decoy fails, Dreyfus will then swoop in, solve the case, deliver both diamond and killer to the public, and win adulation and the French Medal of Honor, all in one masterstroke.
And who better to fill the role of the dull-witted buffoon than the infamous Clouseau? "I never thought I would have use of (him)," Dreyfus confesses. But now he has found the perfect job for the hapless policeman - fall guy.
This segues into the series' traditional opening credits scene, in which an animated Clouseau chases the animated Pink Panther about as the credits roll (and sometimes interact with the cartoon characters). Remembering from my own childhood, small children will probably enjoy these credits more than the actual movie. As might some adults.
The story, as one might guess from the synopsis above, is designed to act not as a remake of the original "Pink Panther" from 1964 (whose story it does not resemble at all), but instead as a prequel. A working title for the film was, in fact, "The Birth of the Pink Panther," and it is being released under that title in other countries.
Of course, it actively seems to contradict its role as "prequel" to the 1960's films by referencing Viagra and the internet. This is less of a hindrance than it might be, however. The Clouseau films never really did seem to exist in the real world; they were more a semi-surreal alternate reality.
The most notable thing this film has to overcome is the fact that it is a Clouseau film starring someone other than Peter Sellers as the Inspector. Not counting a Roger Moore cameo in "Curse," this type of re-casting has only been attempted once before, in 1968's abysmal "Inspector Clouseau," starring Alan Arkin (my review of that effort is also available on this site). In that movie, Arkin gave a game performance, but was let down by a dreadful script, leading to the "conventional wisdom" that only Peter Sellers could possibly play Clouseau.
Well, in this movie, Steve Martin - like Arkin before him - gives a game performance. He seems to be genuinely enjoying himself in the role, throwing himself into potentially very tired slapstick situations with great enthusiasm. In fact, I daresay Martin shows more enthusiasm for the role here than Peter Sellers was showing for it in his last couple of outings.
Martin's performances has its weaknesses. Despite his claims to the contrary in interviews, he does seem to be actively imitating Sellers' performance. He also tones down some of the character's less likable aspects. Sellers' Clouseau was not only an accident-prone imbecile, he was also supremely arrogant and often terribly rude to those around him - making for an intriguing dichotomy, in that we always knew he was just a bit of a jerk, but rooted for him anyway. Martin's Clouseau is much less of a jerk, with little of Sellers' arrogance, and a lot less of Sellers' lechery. It may make his Clouseau a cuddlier, more comfortable figure, but it also makes his Clouseau ever-so-slightly less interesting.
Martin co-wrote the screenplay, and therefore the lion's share of the good material goes to him. But there are some good supporting performances, as well. Emily Mortimer is extremely appealing as Clouseau's secretary, and a running joke in which she and Clouseau are always caught in the midst of seemingly scandalous situations (which are, in fact, utterly innocent) is amusing for adults, even if it harms the film's suitability for children. Jean Reno is a solid straight man as Clouseau's partner, Detective Second Class Ponton, selected by Dreyfus as a "man who won't ask any questions." Reno's Ponton and Martin's Clouseau develop an engaging working relationship, in that Ponton is clearly exasperated by his new boss, but also develops a clear affection for him.
Kevin Kline is both good and bad as Dreyfus. He projects the needed arrogance for the role, and his facial expressions at an early press conference - as he becomes dismayed at Clouseau's instant popularity among the media - are funnier than a number of Martin's pratfalls. But he doesn't have the same slow burn that made Herbert Lom's Dreyfus so memorable. Kline starts out exasperated with Clouseau, and ends up the same, with little transition from one state to the next. And though he brings the needed arrogance to the role, he lacks the sense of being an "Everyman" that Lom had. Lom's Dreyfus was always someone we felt a little sorry for, because we never doubted that Dreyfus was a hard worker who was good at his job. Kline's Dreyfus inspires no sympathy at all, and the film's climax renders him into at least as much of a buffoon as Clouseau.
The gags themselves are variable. The best material comes early in the film. There's a wonderfully set-up physical gag involving an out-of-control, runaway spinning globe, which is set up in the scene where Clouseau is introduced to his new office, then forgotten about... only to pay off, in a delightfully surprising fashion, about ten or so minutes later. The early scenes of Clouseau's investigation are also quite endearing. When a suspect is shot, he asks his partner if the man was shot "fatally." When Ponton confirms that he was, Clouseau immediately asks, "How fatally?" Then he demands to speak to the dead man.
The material begins to sag as the film goes on, though. There are really only two gags in the film: Clouseau's pratfalls and general destructiveness, and Clouseau's exaggerated accent. And variations on these are played over and over and over again. This was often a flaw in the old series, as well. But the best entries in the series overcame it by varying the jokes more, or by weaving the jokes around very well-structured stories. The jokes here have little variety, and the story - though not a disaster along the lines of the plotless "Son of the Pink Panther" or the haphazard "Inspector Clouseau" - is thin at best.
There are also missed opportunities. With two investigations running simultaneously - Clouseau's public investigation and Dreyfus' private one - it would have seemed natural for the two to overlap with each other. Have Dreyfus' men interrogate suspects Clouseau has already questioned. Or have Clouseau get the payoff for Dreyfus' work. Have Clouseau heedlessly stomping all over Dreyfus' hard work! It seems like the obvious thing to do, and much could have been milked from this.
But it isn't milked at all. Dreyfus' investigation gets one scene to establish that it is happening, and then vanishes from the movie until the last twenty minutes. Instead, Clouseau goes off on a largely pointless (and mostly unfunny) trip to New York in order to endlessly mispronounce the word "hamburger," and the humor stalls.
Things do pick back up a bit near the end, with an enjoyable climax and a very clever visual gag involving Clouseau and Ponton putting on "camoflage." But in the end, while this is probably the best non-Sellers "Panther" film ever made, I can't help but feel that most viewers would be better off staying home and renting either "A Shot in the Dark" or "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" - both much funnier movies than this one, even if this does end up being quite a bit better than I had expected.
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