Inspector Jacques Clouseau, that ineffable French purveyor of defective detection created by star Peter Sellers and moviemaker Blake Edwards in their classic "Pink Panther" series, may be in movie theaters this weekend, at the center of a spiffy-looking, expensively made "The Pink Panther," starring and co-written by Steve Martin. But the accident-prone sleuth--who, in Peter Sellers' hands, walked into glass doors, stumbled over whirling globes and let killers and thieves frolic under his nose while spicing his oddly French-accented speech with mangled concoctions like "ruum" (for "room")--is back, I'm afraid, in name only.
The new "Pink Panther" isn't a remake, but a kind of prequel about the start of Clouseau's Parisian career, set in our time, with Martin as Clouseau, Kevin Kline replacing Herbert Lom as Clouseau's apoplectic superior Chief Inspector Dreyfus and Jean Reno, in a way, standing in for Burt Kwouk's Kato as Clouseau's new sidekick: deadpan, resourceful gendarme Gilbert Ponton. Their case includes the theft of a "Pink Panther" diamond ring and the televised murder of its owner, Team France soccer coach Yves Gluant (Jason Statham), slain by a poison dart at a match between France and China.
The suspects include Gluant's lover, pop goddess Xania (Beyonce Knowles), team trainer Yuri (Henry Czerny), Chinese dignitaries and French soccer team celebs; the locales range from Paris to New York. But the mystery, as always, is relatively unimportant. Clouseau is assigned to the investigation by the devious Dreyfus--not yet driven to twitching, Lom-like distraction by his incompetent underling--because the junior inspector is already a famous idiot and Dreyfus wants someone sure to foul up the case so he can rescue things and win a Medal of Honor.
That plot somewhat resembles Edwards' gag-happy originals, but the characters deviate. The original Clouseau, as Sellers and Edwards shaped him, was a French fool laboring under the delusion that he was a mix of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Inspector Maigret and Casanova . But Sellers' Clouseau had a contradictory appeal in those great sad eyes, a hint of self-awareness beneath his seemingly oblivious exterior.
Martin's Clouseau, by contrast, shares Sellers' fantasies but often seems a little too self-confident. He has been made into a sweeter and even smarter guy, decked out in ill-fitting clothes--tight top, loose pants and a ridiculous Pepe Le Pew beret-- that emphasize his visual absurdity. Funny as Martin can be, though, he lacks some of Sellers' desperate edge. Instead, that zany smile of Martin's--the key mannerism of one of his own great characters, the Wild and Crazy Guy--almost suggests complacency.
This "Pink Panther" really doesn't have to achieve the heights of the original; it just has to be funny on its own terms. But it pales there too. Kline, a master of comic hypocrisy, deserves more screen time, Emily Mortimer is wasted as Clouseau's adoring assistant Nicole and Knowles is over indulged as Xania. As for Levy, he lacks Edwards' loony, impeccable style and slapstick panache.
We responded to Sellers' Clouseau because his foolishness and fakery echoed something deeply human as well as hilarious. We respond to Martin mostly because he's a funny guy in a silly mustache, cutting up and trying to make us laugh. But jokes aren't everything. Maybe Martin should have forgotten Clouseau, called Dan Aykroyd and made a movie about the Wild and Crazy Guys instead.
`The Pink Panther'
Directed by Shawn Levy; written by Len Blum, Steve Martin; photographed by Jonathan Brown; edited by George Folsey Jr., Brad E. Wilhite; production designed by Lilly Kilvert; music by Christophe Beck; produced by Robert Simonds. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:32. MPAA rating: PG (for occasional crude and suggestive humor and language).
Inspector Clouseau - Steve Martin
Chief Inspector Dreyfus - Kevin Kline
Xania - Beyonce Knowles
Gilbert Ponton - Jean Reno
Nicole - Emily Mortimer
Yuri - Henry Czerny