In a strange case of Hollywood pre-release hype gone wrong, Steve Martin’s anxiously awaited role as the loveably bumbling Inspector Clouseau first appeared lamely, in that annoying “turn off your cell phones” trailer featuring the nouveau Clouseau as a disruptive, joy-buzzered moviegoer. Happily, early fears are unfounded, and Martin’s Clouseau bumbles beautifully in the fairly laugh-riotous 21st version of The Pink Panther.
The franchise that Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers built has returned to the screen, some 30 years later. While purists may well scoff and others will wonder why Hollywood continues ravaging old ideas instead of creating new ones, the rest of us are liable to have a shameless good time. Most importantly, Martin seems ripe for the job, with his flair for physical comedy and fearless embrace of comic idiocy. Martin’s mangled French accent may set back Franco-American relations, but he was the comedian who, during his old stand-up days, used to say, “Oh, those French — they have a different word for everything.”
Hopes are raised from the outset, as the classic format of a cartoon unfolds during opening credits, accompanied by Henry Mancini’s renewably hip big-band theme song (from the age when jazz was fair game in Hollywood). There is a plot involved, concerning a loathsome soccer coach who is murdered in the film’s prelude, and his garish “pink panther” ring has apparently been pilfered. Really, though, the storyline is just a loose premise around which to fling gags — sight gags, linguistic gags, and requisite innuendos. (“Stop browbeating her,” Clouseau tells his assistant, played by actual Frenchman Jean Reno. “Can’t you see she’s sexy?”) Speaking of sexy, Martin and his co-writer finagle Beyoncé Knowles into the script, as a girlfriend, temporary suspect, and soulful singer.
The movie’s spotlight really goes to Martin’s Clouseau, which Sellers might be admiring from his grave. When this Clouseau chews and spits out language, romps around in his beret and flood-style pants, or when he launches into a one-man “good cop/bad cop” routine in the interrogation room, the old Pink magic seems to have returned, at least in small, next-best-thing doses.