You can look at it, as long as you don’t grab it.
If you don’t go braggin’, I might let you have it.
You think that I’m teasin’, but I ain’t got no reason.
I’m sure that I can please you, but first I gotta read you.
—Beyoncé, “Check on It”
Long delayed en route to theaters, this new version of The Pink Panther is aptly colorful and disappointingly lackluster. While vague rumors of trouble circulated throughout last year, the film was set for a series of release dates. Now that it is appearing at last, the rumors seem both exaggerated and warranted. This Pink Panther isn’t so sensationally awful that it might solicit howls of dismay, yet it also seems exactly the sort of film meant to be dropped mid-February, that time of year when studios dump their doggiest of doggy films.
As in the days of yore, when Peter Sellers made Inspector Clouseau seem a conglomeration of ingenious bits, this new version, played by Steve Martin, speaks with a faux French accent. But if this device is occasionally funny in a way that recalls Sellers’ original incarnation—nasally and contemptuous, the character’s puffy-squinchy face and pencily mustache seem derived from later-years Chaplin, only without the smile. Clouseau, that erstwhile tireless twit, seems exhausted.
It doesn’t help that Clouseau and company are stuck inside Martin and Len Blum’s singularly uninspired script. Narrated by his competitive superior, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) and initiated by the sensationally public soccer field murder of a celebrated coach (Jason Statham), Clouseau’s movie-long investigation takes a series of predictable turns, involving the inspector’s manic clumsiness and misplaced confidence. These antics tend to take their primary tolls on an assortment of supporting characters, especially Dreyfus (who is stabbed in the chest with a flying badge, drenched in blue ink when Clouseau mishandles his fountain pen, and dragged by a car until he’s broken and bloodied—oh the hilarity) and Clouseau’s loyal and adorable secretary Nicole (Emily Mortimer).
Dreyfus assigns Clouseau to the case in hopes that he will fail, and leave the way open for the Chief Inspector to complete the investigation successfully and thus win a French Medal of Honor (the plan just sounds ludicrous—why not mount his own investigation and be done with it?). To this end, Dreyfus assigns Clouseau a driver, Ponton (Jean Reno), instructed to report on the inspector’s every move. The two strike up a friendship in their mini, which Clouseau insisting that he will keep Ponton “alert” by assaulting him at unexpected moments—each time, the driver beats him to the punch, literally.
Predictably, Clouseau finds all sorts of bizarre ways to baffle both the villains and the devious Dreyfus, even as he also stumbles on a second murder and an array of not-very-compelling suspects. Of these, the most luscious is the dead coach’s girlfriend, vavoomy “international pop star” Xania. In this presumably chopped-up part, Beyoncé Knowles’ few bland minutes on screen hardly seem worth the co-starring credit: what is the point of casting her if you cut away from her only on-stage song (not to mention that the cut is to an egregiously silly dance by Clouseau and Ponton, who are dressed to match the wallpaper? (Don’t ask.)
The film’s stunningly injudicious use of Beyoncé is actually hard to fathom, as she looks fabulous just standing on a red carpet or seated at a Nets game (put another way, it doesn’t take much thought to make good use of her on a screen). She’s untrained as an actor, to be sure, but she’s been at least marginally better elsewhere: the Austin Powers movie, reacting to Mike Meyers, and The Fighting Temptations, reacting to Cuba Gooding Jr., both performers at least as demented and hard to keep up with as Martin. The fact that Martin also looks enfeebled here suggests the film’s problem is not hers alone.
Clouseau’s own infatuation with Xania involves ogling her bodacious body (while proclaiming an “intimate” knowledge of her work) and then following her to New York City, where she gone to do, as she explains, “something vague.” In the U.S., he wears an “I [heart] NY” cap and his fake Frenchness becomes more pronounced and pointless, if that’s possible.
It’s not as if French-bashing was unknown when Blake Edwards made his film in 1964, but Sellers was so infamous for comic accents and outrageous characterizations that his Clouseau might as well have been from Mars. Martin’s version comes surrounded by recent political squabbles and ethical one-upsmanship, much of it strange enough to seem fictional, or at least frantically nationalistic. (And we don’t even need to mention the bad idea that was French Kiss). The film’s single reflection on today’s new context takes place at the airport, where Clouseau’s incomprehensible accent puzzles a security guard, who in turn mistakes him for a terrorist, calling in a heavily armed team and a ferocious dog named W.
This focus on Clouseau as annoying and snobbish but also ridiculous makes fun of “zee Fwench” even as it also makes fun of the making fun. Caught between revering the original film (complete with liberal use of the Henry Mancini theme song) and efforts to “update,” The Pink Panther (and yes, a gigantic diamond is involved) bumps along. Clive Owen makes a brief appearance in order to send up his lost shot at the James Bond franchise (here he plays 006, whom Clouseau calls “one short of zee beeg time”). And Jean Reno, bless him, gets the prize for infinite patience, as he maintains an admirable serenity amid the frenzy, perhaps especially when clobbering Clouseau.