This is not George Lazenby making his doomed run at James Bond, or even Mel Gibson presuming to play Hamlet. This is serious heresy, combined with a touch of felonious assault. It has evidently not occurred to Steve Martin that, just as there is only one Eiffel Tower, there is but one Inspector Clouseau. The famously inept French detective was created by Peter Sellers, perfected by Peter Sellers over the course of five feature-length installments, and lives on in the canon of the late Peter Sellers. And neither the flood of Clouseauian self-delusion that seems to affect Martin at the moment, nor the insistence by his present collaborators that they have refashioned the lovable fool in the white trench coat to suit a new audience in a new century, will do much to loosen Sellers's eternal hold on the franchise. They may as well be shooting BB guns at a battleship.
In The Pink Panther, an occasionally amusing but wrongheaded remake that arrives more than four decades after the original blazed across the screen, Martin tries to reconstruct Clouseau as an Internet-obsessed bumpkin who actually conceals a bit of competence behind his comic speech impediment, his prissy pursed lips and his monstrous indestructibility. The essential quality this nouveau Clouseau retains from his great model is sheer ignorance of the mayhem he's inflicting on the world: Martin bowls over an entire peloton of bicycle racers in the streets of Paris, wrecks a musical recording session, smashes a priceless antique desk and single-handedly destroys two floors of the Waldorf-Astoria (yes, Clouseau visits New York!) without noticing a thing.
Fine and good, but our man's other classic bona fides don't survive. For one thing, the current movie fails to properly sustain the inspector's blind vanity, the stubborn belief that he's doing right and solving problems even as he's fomenting chaos. That has been the source of our delight since 1963 -- and the inspiration for Clouseau imitators like buffoonish Lieutenant Frank Drebin, of the Naked Gun movies. Armed with that, neither Sellers nor writer-director Blake Edwards ever demanded sympathy for Clouseau or laid on anything like pathos in the face of his spectacular failures. But that's exactly what the current moviemakers stoop to near the end of this declawed Panther. They not only ask us to feel pity for the fallen Clouseau; at least momentarily, they also give him a glimpse of his own folly. And if this is not fatal, the next thing is: a flash of authentic detective skill in the hero. Inspector Jacques Clouseau was not put on this earth to solve cases; he's here to completely screw them up, then stumble into surreal solutions. And when these screenwriters -- Michael Saltzman, Len Blum and Martin himself -- trespass against that principle, their Clouseau is suddenly lost, hopelessly adrift on a floe of minor insight.
The Pink Panther
Meanwhile, the movie goes on its merry slapstick way. The plot is the usual trifle about the murder of a French soccer coach, the disappearance of the huge diamond from which both versions of The Pink Panther take their title and, against all the odds, the assignment of Clouseau to the case. This time around, his pompous, scheming boss, Dreyfus, is played by Kevin Kline, who winds up predictably bruised and battered; his combative Oriental houseboy of yore, Kato (now politically incorrect), has been replaced by a dour Paris detective named Ponton (the veteran French actor Jean Reno), who serves as both foil and friend. Previous Panther films have, of course, deployed beauties like Claudia Cardinale, Capucine and Dyan Cannon, so the presence here of Destiny's Child diva Beyoncé Knowles is no surprise, even though she exists mainly as a beautiful prop who models a series of slinky costumes before performing a new song in the frantic finale.
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Martin has some high comic moments: struggling mightily with the single phrase "I would like to buy a hamburger" in a session with an English-language coach, playing good-cop-bad-cop all by himself, snagging his index finger in the top of a doorjamb and hanging there in agony, camouflaging himself as flowered wallpaper. Director Shawn Levy (who worked with Martin in Cheaper by the Dozen) bravely goes through the motions, but there's no escaping the conclusion that Clouseau would have been better left alone -- like Vito Corleone and Terry Malloy. The penultimate chapter of the original six-movie set, 1982's Trail of the Pink Panther, released after Sellers's death, was stitched together from outtakes and new linking sections; a year later, Edwards desperately tried to keep the series alive with Curse of the Pink Panther, casting young Ted Wass as Clouseau and surrounding him with co-stars from earlier films. In both cases, the results were pretty dismal. That lesson apparently has been lost on Steve Martin and company.