Peter Sellers is so deeply identified with monumentally bumbling Inspector Clouseau that one wonders why Steve Martin would want to take a crack at the character with a remake of THE PINK PANTHER. Others, including the character’s co-creator, Blake Edwards, have taken their shot and failed miserably. Martin, who co-wrote the script, at least makes more of a success of it. He didn’t try for a remake so much as a revisiting of the characters, leaving the premise intact with a few twists.
Clouseau, as we are told at the outset by Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline), is the single most inept police officer in all of France. The reason he is brought from a small village in the countryside to Paris is all part of Dreyfus’ scheme to finally win the Medal of Honor, for which he’s been nominated seven times. He’ll bring in Clouseau to solve the headline-grabbing murder of a superstar soccer coach and theft of his enormous pink diamond, the Pink Panther, and while Clouseau bungles the case for the press, he, Dreyfus will quietly solve the case and nab the murderer, recover the diamond, and clinch the medal.
Naturally things go awry. Clouseau isn’t just inept, he’s a clear and present danger to vowels, syntax, common sense, and public safety. And that’s when he’s being careful. He’s a gimlet-eyed idiot with a curlicue mustache and a painfully literal world view. He’s clueless about everything, including his own cluelessness as he navigates a world with a fearless conviction that doesn’t wilt even in the face of irrefutable logic. In short, the perfect foil for Dreyfus. In the persons of Martin and Kline, both display pomposity beyond the reach of mere mortals and a complete oblivion to anything a centimeter beyond their particular orbit. That both are superb physical comedians who don’t so much compete as complement each other’s styles and this does much to smooth over the less successful moments of the film’s unrestrained celebration of silliness and slapstick. As does Jean Reno’s exquisite hangdog sang froid as the lieutenant assigned to Clouseau ostensibly as his driver, but in fact to be his babysitter in order to keep tabs on him.
Those moments that don’t work include a farting sequence in a sound-proof booth that grind the action to a stop, and a pronunciation joke that has Clouseau trying to learn an American accent that runs on too long in the set up and doesn’t pay off the way that someone thought it would and might have under better conditions. Then there’s Beyonce Knowles, as the coach’s pop star girlfriend who may or may not have had something to do with the crime. She is a fine singer and a lovely woman. As long as she is singing or posing, she is a delight. When she tries to act, it is best to look the other way while waiting for the next great sight gag, such as Clouseau’s chivalry towards his devoted secretary (Emily Mortimer) taking on the appearance of something prurient, or that tender moment towards the end when Clouseau makes a startling connection between vegetables and women.
THE PINK PATHER a la 2006 doesn’t disgrace the original. It doesn’t improve on it either. One comes away pondering the enormous potential and the sad way it was squandered. This is a mixed bag, but while the jokes misfire as often as they hit their target, there is at least one advantage over most middling films. When it works, it is very, very funny. Whether that’s worth shelling out the cash for a ticket, though, is problematical. Should such unevenness be encouraged? Or should it be given a second chance with a sequel to get it right?