THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Pink Panther remake arrives amid a sea of bad buzz. It was quite visibly yanked from its original August 2005 release date and placed in the less prestigious Valentine’s Day weekend 2006 slot. Such a move always gets industry tongues wagging, although in this case the delay had as much to do with Sony’s purchase of MGM than anything. Early critical word has also been bad. Most of the critics who saw the film early seem to have generally the same criticism: How dare they remake this?. Well, I’m here to offer a different point of view. Let’s make it clear that the original Pink Panther films (which my father took me to see as a child) are comedy classics, and original star Peter Sellers was a genius. Those facts are indisputable. However, the new Pink Panther stars Steve Martin - who is also a genius, albeit one with a different style – and the film is aimed at audiences who never saw the originals, don’t remember them, or don’t revere them as “untouchable” by others. Personally, I fall into the third category. The originals are great, but if multiple actors can interpret MacBeth, why can’t the same be true of Inspector Jacques Clouseau?

The story begins with the high profile murder of famous soccer coach Yves Gluant (played by the uncredited Jason Statham). The murder takes place in a stadium full of fans, just as Gluant’s team has won a big game. During the on-field celebration, he takes a poison dart to the neck, and the giant Pink Panther diamond he wore on his finger mysteriously disappears. The local law official, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline), wants to use the case as leverage to win a Medal of Honor, which he has been nominated for seven times yet never won. He decides that the best way to do this is to hire someone incompetent to investigate, thereby diverting the media while he does the real work.

This is how he brings Inspector Jacques Clouseau to the case. Clouseau is a bumbling nitwit who somehow manages to turn everything he touches into a disaster. Of course, he doesn’t realize that about himself. Dreyfus orders a more competent police officer, Ponton (Jean Reno), to serve as a babysitter. Clouseau likes to spring “surprise” attacks on Ponton to test both their reflexes. These usually result in Clouseau getting smacked in the head. The investigation kind of meanders, much like the inspector’s attention, but there does seem to be a possibility that the dead man’s pop star girlfriend, Xania (Beyonce Knowles), knows more about the situation than she lets on. Clouseau doesn’t want to pump her for information though; when Ponton tries, the inspector delivers the following Freudian order: “Stop browbeating her! Can’t you see she’s sexy?”

I think a lot of the naysaying about the remade Pink Panther comes from a great reverence toward Peter Sellers, who made the role of Inspector Clouseau such a part of the movie landscape. To be fair, there is a distinct difference. Steve Martin plays Clouseau, whereas Sellers became Clouseau. He embodied the character just as he embodied every character he ever played; that chameleonic quality was part of the Sellers mystique. No one could fill the shoes of the late, great comedian, but I don’t necessarily think that Martin is trying. He’s doing his own interpretation of the character. While the concept of a remake dictates that some things must be the same (bumbling mannerism, goofy French accent), Martin tries to bring his own comic perspective.

You can see this plainly in the screenplay, which Martin co-wrote. Some of the famous scenes from the original are duplicated, yet the script is filled with Martin’s trademark brand of absurdist humor, which will be instantly recognizable to fans of his other writing efforts, like Roxanne and L.A. Story. For instance, in interrogating a suspect, Clouseau decides to use the good cop/bad cop routine – but he plays both roles himself. The first time we see the inspector, he is trying to parallel park his miniature car. Despite having sufficient room to fit his automobile three times over, he nevertheless smacks into the cars in front of and behind him. There is also a funny sequence where Clouseau – anticipating a romantic evening with Xania - drops his last Viagra down the sink, which sets off a disastrous chain of accidents.

I’ve always been a fan of Steve Martin’s skewed comic vision, and he is visibly having a lot of fun working it here. To me, that fun was infectious. Not every joke in the movie works, but many of them do. There is a hilarious scene involving a fish tank full of piranhas, a funny sequence in which hapless Clouseau tries to learn to say the word “hamburger,” and a killer fart joke. (Those are rare in movies.) The Pink Panther franchise offers an opportunity to go completely unhinged – to try any comic idea, no matter how off the wall. Steve Martin is an enormously talented and versatile guy who nevertheless has spent the last few years playing uptight characters (the Cheaper by the Dozen films, Bringing Down the House) or exploring more serious sides to his abilities (Shopgirl). The Pink Panther lets him be the wild-and-crazy guy again, and this is fun to watch.

No one is going to put the remake in the same category as the original, that’s for sure. The Sellers version was a classic, which this one is not. That said, the new Pink Panther is funny on its own terms. If you can divorce yourself from total allegiance to the original - or if you have no allegiance to the original - then this is an enjoyable movie with some real laughs courtesy of a modern day comic genius.

( out of four)

The Pink Panther is rated PG for occasional crude and suggestive humor and language. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.

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