Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Pink Panther (MGM/Columbia/Sony, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Pink Panther, the 2006 quasi-remake of the 1963 film that introduced Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau to the world — and it may seem heretical, but I actually found the new one funnier than the old. I’m not saying Steve Martin, the star of this Pink Panther and the 2009 sequel, is a greater comedian than Peter Sellers — but I suspect, having recently re-seen the first two Sellers Clouseaus, the 1963 Pink Panther and the 1964 A Shot in the Dark, that there’s a tendency among film buffs to remember these movies as funnier than they really are. Martin is a surprisingly credible physical comedian (even if, as I suspect, a lot of his pratfalls were stunt-doubled the way many of Robin Williams’ were in Flubber) and he does the cluelessness about as well as any modern comedian could have, even though it’s clear throughout the movie that he doesn’t have his own “read” on the character: he’s playing Peter Sellers playing Clouseau.

Not surprisingly, the new Pink Panther used nothing from the original but the title, the fabulously expensive jewel after which the film is named, and some of the character names. It opens in the middle of a World Cup semi-final between France and China, in which France scores an upset victory in a sudden-death overtime (actually when a regular soccer game is tied at the end, it’s settled with penalty kicks — I’ll never forget the World Cup that was held in the U.S. in which the final was between Italy and Brazil, the two teams held each other to a scoreless tie in regulation play, and Brazil finally won 1-0 on a penalty kick — and people wonder why soccer isn’t a popular spectator sport in the U.S.?), and the French coach, Yves Gluant (Jason Statham), is immediately murdered with a poisoned dart as his team is celebrating the win.

The gimmick is that the Commissioner of Police for Paris, Dreyfus (Kevin Kline in the role originated in the 1960’s by Herbert Lom), is upset because he’s been nominated seven times for the Medal of Honor but has never won. (“Being nominated seven times is … something,” he muses, a Hollywood in-joke about people who’ve been repeatedly nominated for Academy Awards but never won.) His strategy is to find the most incompetent local policeman in all France, give him a promotion to Inspector, bring him to Paris and set him to work on the Gluant murder — while he himself works behind the scenes and actually solves the case. The suspects are a motley crew including Gluant’s girlfriend, pop singer Xania (Beyoncé Knowles, frankly less appealing singing her own music than she was as Diana Ross in Dreamgirls or Etta James in Cadillac Records); Bizu (William Abadie), the team’s star player, who was dating Xania until she left him for Gluant; Cherie (Kristen Chenoweth), who was dating Bizu until he left her for Xania; plus assorted hangers-on including the team’s trainer, Yuri (“the trainer who trains,” Clouseau repeatedly calls him in his fractured English) and members of the Chinese team, whom Dreyfus suspects because the poison that killed Gluant was made from Chinese herbs.

The plot doesn’t really matter much — Yuri turns out to be the killer, in case you actually cared (though there’s a nice worm-turning moment in which we learn that Clouseau was able to solve the case because his preposterous claim of being able to understand Chinese was actually true, and the resolution based on a chain of hilarious deductions was pretty obviously intended as a parody on Sherlock Holmes) — but there are some brilliant sight gags as well as some interestingly inventive turns on some of the old chestnuts. When Dreyfus gives Clouseau a fountain pen to sign his appointment as an inspector, we wait for — and dread — the scene in which Clouseau will spray Dreyfus in the face with the ink. Instead Clouseau signs the document without mishap, hands Dreyfus the pen uncapped — and Dreyfus puts it in his shirt pocket and we see more and more of his white shirt stained black as the ink drips from it until he utters the punch line, “Why am I feeling wet?” Later Clouseau starts twirling a big bronze globe in the commissioner’s office — and just when one is beginning to think the globe might magically turn into a balloon and he might do a Chaplin-style dance with it, instead it slips off its moorings, barrels down the stairs of the building and starts taking out pedestrians, cars and the bicyclists running the Tour de France. (Well, the Tour is one of the most famous things that happens in France these days, so it was almost inevitable they’d mine it for a gag — and, indeed, bicyclists really take it in the neck throughout this film.)

There’s also a gag in which Clouseau flies to New York to pursue a clue and ends up searched at the airport and arrested for trying to smuggle two hamburgers onto the flight home, and another in which he totally accidentally gets credit for capturing the “Gas Mask Bandits,” who release toxic gas into public places and rob them at will because they’re wearing gas masks, courtesy of British secret agent 006 (“You’re one number short of the top,” Clouseau says) who dons Clouseau’s coat and goes after the bandits because “nobody can know I’m here.” The new Pink Panther isn’t exactly a deathless comedic masterpiece, but it’s a very funny film and it does a good job of maintaining the sought-after balance of physical and verbal humor — and frankly it made me laugh harder than the originals from the 1960’s did!

Kudos belong to director Shawn Levy and the usual writing committee — Maurice Richlin and Blake Edwards (who directed the original Pink Panther movies) get credit for creating the characters, and Len Blum receives co-credits for both the original story (with Michael Saltzman) and the screenplay (with Steve Martin, who shows a good instinct for what works for him and what doesn’t — and he’s written much-produced plays like Picasso at the Lapin Agile so he’s not just an egomaniac star demanding a writing credit for little or no actual input) — and also to Christophe Beck, who’s credited with an “original” score but mostly — wisely — confines himself to a series of inventive variations on Henry Mancini’s original “Pink Panther” theme (including a funny disco version that heralds Xenia’s arrival on screen) — and of course there’s a pink-panther animated sequence in the opening credits, though it’s digitally done in the three-dimensional Pixar style and somehow not as cute or clever as the old hand-drawn animation of the originals. But that’s a minor disappointment in a very funny movie that honors its original source and at the same time manages, in a way, to outdo it.