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"The Pink Panther": The Case of the Missing Laughs

by on July 29, 2006

There’s no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood, but the odds were stacked heavily in The Pink Panther‘s favor. It boasts not only one of the most beloved comedic characters in film but also two formidable comedic talents in stars Steve Martin and Kevin Kline. Oh, and, uh, Cheaper by the Dozen director Shawn Levy. What could possibly go wrong?

I love the critical dig they include at the bottomQuite a lot as it turns out. This impressively unamusing picture has the feel of a Martin vanity project. He co-wrote it, and Levy’s comments give the impression that Martin was really running the show. Levy also indicates the film was heavily reworked based on test screenings to skew toward family audiences, whose intelligence the studio aggressively underestimates.

In any event Martin decided to almost completely reinvent the character of Panther protagonist Inspector Clouseau. He is no longer the charmingly oblivious schmuck as played by the great Peter Sellers, but an absolute moron who could not believably have earned his driver’s license let alone become an inspector. I understand Martin wanted to avoid comparison with Sellers, but removing the key ingredient of a franchise’s popularity is inadvisable to say the least.

That leaves little to enjoy besides the attractive European locations, classic theme music, and the Panther himself. Yes, the trademark 2D animated credits are attractively reproduced with the usual amusing cat and mouse between Clouseau and the Panther, including an impromptu tango. Sadly it’s all downhill from there.

Our story begins in an overblown Bond-like manner with the murder of French national soccer team coach Yves Gluant (Jason Statham) and the theft of his priceless Pink Panther diamond. Calculating Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kline), intent on winning the national medal of honor, decides to put the bumbling Clouseau on the case as a smokescreen while he quietly tracks down the thief. He assigns officer Gilbert Ponton (Jean Reno) as Clouseau’s partner to keep tabs on him. Among the suspects are Gluant’s jealous girlfriend Xania (Beyonce Knowles), her jilted ex-boyfriend soccer player, and Gluant’s long-suffering business partner. Needless to say Clouseau’s two main investigative tools are blind luck and wanton destruction.

Martin and Mortimer hear the reviewsMartin’s idiot routine is lifeless and bland, nothing like the inspired stupidity he displayed in The Jerk. Worse still both Clouseau and his assistant/love interest Nicole (Emily Mortimer) have the most ridiculously lame French accents I’ve ever heard. As a kid I always thought Sellers actually was French, but not even an infant would make that mistake here. There’s a sadistically unfunny scene in which Clouseau attempts to learn the proper American pronunciation of hamburger and ends up screaming in unintelligible baby talk. It’s a far cry from Sellers’ comparatively subtle language miscues.

Kline and Reno have little to do but look bored. I cannot fathom how you can take someone with as much comedic talent as Kline and straitjacket him in a completely bland straight man role. As others have said, he may well have been a better choice to play Clouseau himself. Perhaps Martin feared being upstaged and so drained the life from the Dreyfus character, which was quite distinctively and amusingly played by Herbert Lom in the original films.

Reno fills in for Sellers’ trusty Asian manservant Kato, perhaps as a nod to political correctness. As Martin, citing old age, opted to forego the duo’s traditionally wild training fights, Reno serves little purpose.

Beyonce proves she’s still far better off behind a mike than in front of a camera with a gratingly amateurish performance, but fortunately her role is fairly small.

Does Clouseau think pink?There are a few laughs for the extremely patient. Putting a twist on one of Sellers’ classic bits, Clouseau absentmindedly spins the huge globe in his office until it jumps right off the stand and goes crashing down the stairs and out into traffic. Although not terribly original, the best set piece occurs when Clouseau takes a time out from awkwardly attempting to seduce Xania in her hotel room to go to the bathroom. He floods it, sets it on fire, electrocutes himself, and finally falls through the weakened floor right into the lobby. In one of Martin’s few inspired moments he proceeds to nonchalantly dust himself off and announce his room needs fresh towels.

Having royally screwed up the film, the studio is at least kind enough to provide a healthy serving of extras. Levy’s commentary gives many interesting details about production, but, possibly concerned Martin might be listening; he embarrassingly talks up woefully lame “gags” such as Clouseau wearing an “I Love New York” cap.

The deleted scenes with commentary from Levy are numerous and dull, although there’s one gem that should have made the cut. When Clouseau’s sushi order finally reaches him at the very back of an outrageously long airliner it’s stale and germ-coated. Intestinal distress follows, and he makes a mad dash down the never-ending aisle only to find every single lavatory occupied. Announcing to the stewardess he’s about to explode, he is swiftly tackled by a swarm of air marshals.

Another Martin flick up in smoke“Cracking the Case” gives an overall look at the production through interviews with cast and crew. The interviewees are primarily occupied with kissing up to their coworkers, although Kline gives an amusing rant on how over the hill Martin is.

“Animated Trip” will please animation fans with its look at the creation of the animated credits, in which the animators gushingly explain how they tried to pay homage to original openings. Also included in the extras is an alternate CGI credits sequence from a different studio, which is very stylish but a bit dull by comparison.

The remaining featurettes are all candid on set footage, which holds little entertainment value unless one is a budding filmmaker, and if so you should probably be looking for tips elsewhere.

Also included are two Beyonce music videos for her fans, a typical pop song and a more Panther-appropriate Bond-like number, and an animated commercial in which the Panther hawks Sweet N’ Low (!). What, Pepto-Bismol couldn’t match their offer?

This Pink Panther is strictly for the little ones. For others it is a tedious exercise nearly bereft of the charms of the original films. Which may also be an apt description of Martin’s career of late. We can only hope he hooks up with a quality director before he remakes again. Never mind the gaudy baubles, someone steal that Panther 2 script.

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