What do we expect from Steve Martin now? What does he expect from us? It’s been almost three decades since Martin arrived in movies as the co-writer and star of The Jerk, and his trajectory since then has combined high and low comedic styles with what seems in retrospect like reckless abandon, courting brilliance and disaster indiscriminately.
Anticipation of The Pink Panther, in which Martin tries on the role originated by Peter Sellers for director Blake Edwards in 1963, has been driven by the cranky assumption that, just by saying yes, Martin has done Sellers some unpardonable injury. It’s more interesting to wonder whether he’s hurt or helped himself. To properly assess Martin’s turn as Inspector Clouseau, we must take into account the full range of his interests and abilities, from his Cyrano to his Sgt. Bilko.
In other words, with The Pink Panther, we must admit that what’s funny about it is funny and what’s dumb is dumb. There will be debates on both subjects.
The movie begins with the murder of a famous soccer coach (Jason Statham) and subsequent disappearance of a priceless gem, known colloquially as the pink panther. As a lark, really, it details Clouseau’s promotion to inspector by the scheming Chief Dreyfus (Kevin Kline), a perennial runner-up for the Medal of Honor who wants an incompetent on the case in order to make himself look better by comparison. Director Shawn Levy asks us to chalk this lame logic up to eccentric characterization and doesn’t help himself with stiff exposition, perfunctory gags and an overwrought score by Christophe Beck, who seems rightly intimidated by the aura of Henry Mancini. Beck’s reflexive updates of Mancini’s famous theme don’t do it any favors.
The cast also includes an attractive suspect (Beyoncé Knowles, appealing, directionless), a loyal secretary (Emily Mortimer, charming, coltish) and a straight-man sidekick (Jean Reno, adequate). What matters most to our feeling for the film, though, is Martin’s dauntless naif, Clouseau, a cracked pillar of overconfidence and incompetence. Whether he actually solves the crime is less important than how amusing it is to watch him try.
Sometimes it’s hilarious. Inherent to the part is a winning combination of innocence and bravura that was Martin’s signature as a young comedian and still allows fresh surprises. For instance, Clouseau’s futile recruitment of a vocal coach to camouflage his ridiculous accent is an inspired bit, particularly because it goes a few degrees too far. When not seeming like an unfortunate regression, as it often does, Martin’s Clouseau might be called a return to form.
Other actors reportedly considered the role, and, given the prospects, we can be thankful that it didn’t go to the leaden and unfunny Kevin Spacey, who’d have sunk it at once, or to the guilelessly self-assured Mike Myers, who’d be too much of a no-brainer. A little more brainwork, actually, might have helped matters. The script, co-written by Martin and Len Blum from a story by Blum and Michael Saltzman, would sooner give up on itself than assert any self-discipline. Characters and complications arrive just auspiciously enough to underscore the mistake of their later abandonment. Gags run the tonal gamut—a carefully deployed fart joke here and a disarming, witty riff on sexual harassment there—just relentlessly enough to ruin their own pacing.
It’s a shame, especially, that Martin, Blum and Levy haven’t quite decided how their Clouseau works. Does his obliviousness contain only pure idiocy or some perverse scheme of deductive brilliance? Just how industriously imperceptive is the man, and how lucky? There’s no right answer, but a declaration would secure our sympathy. It matters not only because the concept was already unoriginal even in the early ’60s, but also because movies and TV have since supplied us with a full array of bumbling, unexpectedly capable detectives. The bar is higher now.
Martin has been trying to reconcile the wild and crazy guy with the aesthetically sensitive intellectual, and we’ve assumed even his most strenuous efforts to be in good faith. The energy and generosity of this movie, not to mention the existing precedent, suggest sequels on the way, and it’s to Martin’s credit that the notion isn’t entirely repulsive. A couple more tries at Clouseau might hone the part into something revelatory. For now, though it may be a mixed blessing, The Pink Panther at least seems like the movie Martin deserves.