Most Yale students are too young to remember the original “Pink Panther,” starring Peter Sellers. Most Yale students are also too young to remember a time when people thought Steve Martin was funny.
Our well-intentioned parents — and Comedy Central’s reruns — remind us that star of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Planes, Trains, & Automobiles” was once a force to be reckoned with. Yet in the past ten years, Martin has delivered only crushing flops, from “Bringing Down the House” to his latest appearance as Inspector Jacques Clouseau in the latest (uninspired) installment in “The Pink Panther” series.
Clouseau is hauled out of provincial obscurity by Chief Inspector Dreyfuss of the Parisian Police force, who is desperate to finally win a medal of honor. Dreyfuss, played by a surprisingly unimpressive Kevin Kline, hires Clouseau to solve the murder of a famous French soccer coach and track down a missing pink diamond. While Dreyfuss was only seeking your average “unimaginative incompetent,” Clouseau is not simply an underqualified officer, but a walking disaster who makes Inspector Gadget look like James Bond.
Fueled by Clouseau’s bumbling, the movie is gag-a-minute, much to its detriment. From leaking pens and bad puns to electric shocks and a giant globe that escapes and terrorizes Parisian bikers, every opportunity is seized and squandered by a convenient slapstick trick that obscures the already insubstantial plot.
While Martin — and the screenplay, which he cowrote with Len Blum — may be painfully predictable if occasionally charming, the supporting cast does not fare much better. The usually impeccable Kline, who made a name for himself in “A Fish Called Wanda,” limps through the film. His Dreyfuss is neither subversive nor silly enough to distinguish himself from every other comic villain who discovers his plot is being foiled. His performance is only made less intolerable in comparison with Martin’s.
Beyonce Knowles — who perhaps was hoping to reprise her role as Foxxy Cleopatra in “Goldmember” — plays Xania, the dead man’s girlfriend. Despite sparkly dresses and perpetual coquettishness, Xania is just another curvaceous pop star (and dubious temptress) who seduces a foreign investigator, of SNL fame and copious sequels, with a silly accent. If this is crossover success, let’s rehire Matthew Knowles’ and stick to the music biz.
While the casting (along with the jokes, plot lines, etc.) does leave something to be desired, the movie is not entirely without fun. In a world full of skinny ties and overt sexual innuendo, French actor Jean Reno plays Clouseau’s perpetual straight man, Gendarme Gilbert Ponton. Though generally confined to curt nods and pained wincing, Reno trumps Martin at his own game when the middle-aged men are forced to play Xania’s backup dancers. The trick may not be new, but Reno deserves a laugh if he can laugh at himself.
Aside from Reno, other part-time action stars make cameos. Clive Owen pops in as Agent 006 — a potentially ironic appearance that lends some spark, and shows viewers why he might have deserved a shot at the Bond franchise instead of Daniel Craig.
But despite the rare successes and the star-studded cast, the humor falls flat. Director Sean Levy is in such an inexplicable hurry that nearly every joke is dropped in the shuffle. And while the result is a blessedly short film, coming in at a meager hour and a half, the delivery is amateurish at best.
Furthermore, the plot is unforgivably lacking. Although allegedly a sort of prequel to the original “Pink Panther,” there is nothing new or fresh about it, and the addition of cell phones, e-mail and Viagra are invasive without updating anything beyond the individual gags they play into.
While the “Pink Panther” series is known for its silly irreverence, Martin’s rendition does little to revive it: It borrows too much of the fart jokes and sexual innuendo of information age comedy without ever doing anything new or different. Worse yet, it plays the old familiar gags less effectively than before, leaving you longing for the Peter Sellers original. Or at least “All of Me.”