The good news is that it isn’t as bad as might have been expected — or as bad as most re-makes, or re-castings of classic movies turn out to be. The bad news is that it still isn’t very good. Steve Martin can be a funny guy, but he’s no Peter Sellers and should never have agreed to co-write and star in a sort of remake — technically a prequel — of The Pink Panther. But nor is he Phil Silvers, and that didn’t stop him from messing around a few years ago with Sergeant Bilko, and with even more disastrous results. What is it that makes Mr. Martin want to keep matching himself against such comic geniuses — and not just comic geniuses but men who have created, as he has not, an unforgettable comic character that will always be associated with their names? This is perhaps a matter for his psychiatrist, but a child could have told him that The Pink Panther was a mistake.
Actually, that’s just it. The new Panther is a movie for the dimmer sort of children who can’t tell the difference between an immortal comic creation like Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau and Martin’s pale imitation. The difference, in case they want to know, is the difference between a comic character — like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp or W.C. Fields’s bank dick or Laurel and Hardy in their screen personae — and a comedian with an array of gags in his box of tricks but no character of his own to make him interesting apart from the gags. Mr. Martin’s most unforgivable bit of tampering with the classic prototype of Clouseau’s character is to make him smart. Or rather, to make him smart and dumb. First he’s dumb. So dumb that he’s even dumber than Sellers’s Clouseau. So dumb that he makes a sack of stones look smart. But then he gets smart in the end, instead of merely lucking into his success — which of course only makes the caricature more offensively false.
That neither Steve Martin nor his co-writer, Len Blum (Private Parts), nor his director, Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, Cheaper by the Dozen 2) cares about such a glaring inconsistency in character shows that they don’t understand the material they’re working with. For Clouseau’s stupidity is of his very essence. And not only his stupidity but the desperation with which he constantly has to hide it. Mr. Martin’s Clouseau is too stupid even to know he’s stupid. Except when he’s smart. Nor is there any logic or attempt at plausibility in the transitions between the stupid and the smart Clouseaux. The guy who’s saying in one scene that it’s quite a coincidence that a dead body fell exactly into the chalk outline around it is replying quite wittily in the next to Clive Owen in an uncredited cameo as “Nigel Boswell, Agent 006. Do you know what that means?”
“Yes, that you are one short of the big time.”
And then there’s the occasion when sidekick Jean Reno — looking woefully out of place as the lone authentic Frenchman here — warns Clouseau that an invitation from sexy Beyonce Knowles to her hotel room “may be a trap” and the Inspector replies: “Who cares?” Yet this is a guy who is too dumb to know that “good-cop-bad-cop” normally requires two cops at a minimum or that a man’s greeting his killer by saying, “It’s you!” doesn’t mean that he should round up everyone in Paris with the name “You” (or Yu). By the time that the usually reliable Kevin Kline, who can get no traction with the Herbert Lom role as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, tells him that he is a “hopeless, deluded idiot,” we find it difficult to respond, as the music tells us we are supposed to, with sympathy for the idiot on account of the blow to his self-esteem. “You mean, I wasn’t promoted because of my merits?”
Oh, come off it! There’s no reason left for thinking that this could possibly have come as a shock to him, or that he could have felt hurt if it did. And then to turn around and show this idiot working out for himself the identity of the killer and the whereabouts of the missing diamond, the eponymous jungle feline, just to show old Dreyfus how mistaken he is is the height of absurdity. In other words, there is no attempt to make anything about this movie look like reality, which is not quite the same thing as a merely unbelievable movie like the original Pink Panther (1963) or A Shot in the Dark (1964) — the film that was actually the first in the series, though it was released second. Those earlier pictures still had a tether to reality, which was enough for Mr. Sellers to build his comic creation on. This Pink Panther is just an excuse for jokes and pratfalls.
As I have suggested already, some of the jokes are funny, sort of. I especially liked the one where, in a classic detective story move, Clouseau picks up a ringing telephone on the desk of a suspect before the suspect can get it, sure that the voice on the other end will give him valuable information about the man’s criminal connections — and then proceeds to make a deal with a telemarketer for cell phone service. “I think I just got a good deal!” he announces triumphantly. But such isolated laughs are not enough to save the picture, or for us to forgive Steve Martin for undertaking roles so far in excess of his capacities.
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator‘s movie critic.