The first of the Pink Panthers to have nothing whatsoever to do with the universe of the Peter Sellers films (not counting 1968’s Inspector Clouseau – who ever does?), the film stars Steve Martin as the bumbling detective, plucked from obscurity by Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) to lead the investigation of the murder of French soccer star Yves Gluant (Jason Statham) and the theft of his priceless Pink Panther diamond. Coveting the Légion d’honneur, Dreyfus has deliberately chosen Clouseau with plans to take over the case personally once Clouseau fails. (Why Dreyfus wouldn’t simply appoint himself to such an important case from the very beginning is left unanswered.)
Dreyfus also appoints gendarme Gilbert Ponton (Jean Reno) as Clouseau’s driver to keep an eye on the neophyte detective. Meanwhile, Clouseau questions two chief suspects: pop star Xania (Beyoncé Knowles), Yves’s girlfriend, and Raymond Larocque (Roger Rees), his business partner.
The Pink Panther is an odd film in myriad ways. In Son of the Pink Panther, to a large extent Robert Benigni was asked to suppress his own comic persona in order to perform Peter Sellers’ familiar Clouseau shtick, which is a bit like asking Danny Kaye to suppress his own persona to imitate Bob Hope’s. In The Pink Panther, Steve Martin (who also co-wrote the script) doesn’t try to adapt his own strengths to the Inspector Clouseau character, but rather become the Inspector Clouseau as played by Sellers. In other words, Martin’s Clouseau is an imitation of another actor’s creation. It’s a good imitation as far as that goes, but I can’t imagine such an exercise would be very rewarding either as an actor or as a comedian.
(However, Sellers’ Clouseau generally seemed competent initially; colleagues and suspects alike would take him seriously, at first. This allowed the comedy to build gradually, so that Clouseau’s bumbling would test the patience of the people whose homes, etc., he would destroy in the process. He was also frequently embarrassed, and in trying to get out of an embarrassing situation only made things worse for himself. Martin’s Clouseau, on the other hand, is a total boob from the get-go, utterly oblivious to his own stupidity.)
Of all the comedy talent to emerge in the 1970s, Martin was almost uniquely admirable because for many years his film projects were consistently ambitious, varied, and sometimes one-of-a-kind. During the 1980s he made one good comedy after another: The Man with Two Brains, The Lonely Guy, All of Me, Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Those films he made that didn’t quite come together were admirable efforts, pictures like Pennies from Heaven (from Dennis Potter’s teleplay) and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. But then he seemed to fall into the high-concept trap of family films and anti-creative remakes: Parenthood, Father of the Bride (and its sequel), Sgt. Bilko (YIKES!), Cheaper by the Dozen, etc. Lord knows what happened, but watching The Pink Panther, one gets the strong sense of Steve Martin – and Kevin Kline – are working far below their abilities.
Yet because Martin’s imitation is good enough – limited though it is – Peter Sellers isn’t so much missed in The Pink Panther as much as Herbert Lom. Both the script and Kevin Kline’s performance move in new directions with the character, but this proves to be a grave misstep. Lom, a serious actor who spent virtually his entire career playing heavies, was essentially a straight man to Sellers’s fairly one-dimensional Clouseau; Clouseau was an indestructible cartoon that contrasted Lom’s human nemesis with human frailties, whom Clouseau continuously sent to the emergency rooms with bruises and broken bones. Lom was deliberately, deliriously hammy but also played it straight, with reactions to Clouseau’s incompetence that happened to be extremely funny. Kline and the character given him, on the other hand, try to be funny, to be as funny as Clouseau in fact, and this is a fatal mistake.
One very odd aspect of the film concerns many of the sight gags, which for no good reason are accomplished via CGI rather than simple trick props and other methods. For instance, in one scene Clouseau breaks a vase over a priceless antique table which then collapses into a pile of rubble. The vase, the table, and part of Steve Martin’s hand are all computer graphics in this shot, obviously so. Why didn’t they simply use a breakaway vase and a collapsable prop table? The effect only draws attention to itself and seems very artificial even if you don’t catch the trick because it lacks the organic quality (or something) of a gag accomplished on set. Interestingly, the animated opening titles with the cartoon Pink Panther and Inspector Clouseau (redesigned to accommodate Martin’s white hair) were also originally CGI but redone using conventional cell animation.
Indeed, the film got an extensive makeover when Sony Pictures acquired MGM, and they opted to spend an additional $5 million to rework the film. Much of its sexual content (mostly double-entendres) was removed to make it more family-friendly like Martin’s ’90s comedies. Here-and-there this extensive retooling results in some herky-jerkiness in the plotting and gives the film an inconsistent tone.
The direction by Shawn Levy (not the same Shawn Levy who wrote the excellent biography of Jerry Lewis, King of Comedy) is adequate if mechanical and uninspired. There are a few decent gags, including a variant on the globe-spinning pratfall Sellers used to do but, in all honestly, the laughs are very few and far between.
The film also errs with some misplaced sentiment toward the end, and a bizarre climax (spoilers) that suddenly gives Clouseau extraordinary powers of deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Out of the blue it also suggests a bona fide mystery the audience was supposed to take seriously (or at least pay attention to) all along. A James Bond spoof mid-way through involving “Agent 006” goes nowhere. (The part was intended for Pierce Brosnan, who contractually couldn’t play it, so it went to Clive Owen instead.)
On the plus side the film presents a totally bogus but eye-pleasing picture postcard idealization of Paris, which the Blu-ray disc brings out well. (There’s an unnecessary side-trip to Manhattan, which really breaks the mood of the piece.) Emily Mortimer, daughter of the late writer John Mortimer, is charming as Clouseau’s secretary and love interest.