Do yourself a favor, rent the original 'Pink Panther'

Someone could do a learned piece for Tikkun magazine on old comedy and new comedy. What's the difference? Well, old comedy used to be funny but now it isn't. Only new comedy is funny. You can tell you're in an old comedy when you're not laughing; it's a dead giveaway.

This has been a summer of old comedy. "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" was so old it didn't merit criticism so much as carbon-14 dating. Now comes "Son of the Pink Panther." Old? The script was found in the fossil record by the University of Colorado Department of Paleobotany. Old? Steven Spielberg is remaking it as "Jurassic Dreck." Old? Henny Youngman wrote it! Take this movie. Please.


It's not so much that it's bad, as in evil or meretricious or larcenous, as that it just lies there like an unplayed trombone, gathering dust and melancholy in the sunlight. It's completely devoid of energy, unless your idea of energy is watching a rubber-boned Italian precipitate utter catastrophe at his every step. He's a walking chaos theory.

This is Roberto Benigni, the Italian clown with a face and body so unprepossessing it cries "Meek" and lets slip the dogs of weenie self-abrogation. Benigni has been an agreeable presence in a few of Jim Jarmush's amusing independent films, so much so that last year an arty distributor unleashed some of his Italian work ("Johnny Stecchino") on American audiences, which responded with a gigantic and heartfelt ZZZZ-ZZZZZZZZ.


Here he's asked to take up the mantel of the great Peter Sellers, surely the most gifted and supple physical comedian in films since Charlie Chaplin. Benigni is an Italian gendarme on the French Riviera who is the illegitimate son of Sellers through Claudia Cardinale, who appeared in the first "Pink Panther" film back in 1964. Benigni is brought into bumbling action when bad guy Robert Davi kidnaps an Arab princess on the Cote D'Azur to hold for ransom. Besides Cardinale, the Panther waxworks consists of Herbert Lom, whose new blond toupee looks like a yellow fungus, reprising as Dreyfuss, and Bert Kwouk, who was Sellers' manservant in a few of the films.

Benigni is no Peter Sellers, but the inanity of the film isn't really his fault. He tries hard, and his rubbery willingness to absorb any punishment and come up looking as if he's just swallowed a very cold carp isn't without comic potential. But he is continually betrayed by the lame setups. Blake Edwards has been the guru of these things since 1964 (though the films really hit their stride in the mid-'70s) and while I don't mean to sound ageist, perhaps it's time for the distinguished Mr. Edwards to consider a well-earned retreat to the nearest golf course.

What's missing? Zest, creativity, density, paprika, astonishment, speed. Most of all: speed. Slapstick is like basketball -- if it doesn't happen fast, it doesn't happen. Edwards has laid the gags out like single crackers on a long, slow fuse line. Benigni rides his bike into the wet cement, then he gets his feet wet, then he tries to pull the bike out, then he slips, then he pulls it out. The seconds seem like hours. Time dies when you're not having fun.


"Son of the Pink Panther"

Starring Roberto Benigni

Directed by Blake Edwards

Released by MGM/UA