In Blake Edward’s original Pink Panther series, Peter Sellers’s sublimely dense Inspector Clouseau was both benighted fool and anachronistic knight, his Zen-like stupidity bellying a classical gallantry at odds with the coldly modernist chaos around him. Only the foolishness remains in Shawn Levy’s pallid remake, a leaden rehash that, finally materializing after repeated delays, is all too symptomatic of star Steve Martin’s mushy recent choices. To be fair, Martin is a huge improvement over Roberto Benigni, who provided the character’s unendurable previous incarnation, and the inspector’s penchant for pratfalls allows the actor enough physical zaniness to display occasional flashes of his unheralded great turn as the ACME chairman in Looney Tunes: Back in Action.
Still, Martin’s colossally inept French officer, who can’t even sign a document without causing the pen to explode, is straitjacketed by Levy’s sub-Cheaper by the Dozen direction, which similarly strands fellow farceur Kevin Kline as Clouseau’s pompous superior, Chief Inspector Dreyfus. It is Clouseau’s unfailing incompetence, in fact, that gets him assigned to the main case, a soccer match-set murder that leaves the eponymous priceless diamond missing. Whodunit? Roger Rees’s smarmy casino owner? Henry Czerny’s Russian trainer? Or Beyoncé Knowles’s sultry “international pop star,” her bra permanently showing? In any case, Dreyfus is glad to let the bumbler fail miserably, unaware that, despite being the kind of idiot who will execute a “good cop, bad cop” routine by himself, Clouseau has the nagging habit of solving the mysteries of the cosmos.
One near-sublime gag with the inspector laboring to Americanize his pronunciation of the word “hamburger” nearly makes up for the screenplay’s wanton abuse of old “funny” French accents, but the film remains virtually laugh-free, with Edwards’s genius for svelte daisy-chain slapstick oafishly aped by Levy to go along with such updated elements as the Internet, Viagra, sexual harassment, and genital electrocution. (Just to be on the safe side, the those-aren’t-pillows bit from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, everyone’s favorite gay-panic gasser, is mildly brought aboard.) Jean Reno, as Martin’s gendarme straight man, brings a welcome dose of the deadpan clowning he used to inject in his Luc Besson collaborations, and an unbilled cameo by Clive Owen further reminds us that, yes, he would have been a grand James Bond. Peripheral amusements aside, this new Panther remains defanged and more shit-brown than pink.