BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 6, 2009
What is the clue that enables Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin) to uncover the identity of the Tornado, a notorious international thief, at the conclusion of The Pink Panther 2? Well, I’ll tell you. (Is this a spoiler? In the technical sense, yes, though anyone who imagines that this “mystery” is in any way mysterious is already displaying more imagination than the screenwriters. Still, those wishing to retain their innocence might want to skip the next paragraph.)
While moping around a celebratory banquet to which he has not been invited, Clouseau notices the license plate of the as-yet-undiscovered thief’s car and realizes that he’d given that same car a parking ticket two days before the thief claimed to have arrived in Paris. Voila! Case closed. The only problem is that mere moments earlier, the thief had explained to him that the car was a rental--so of course it would have been in Paris before the thief arrived.
Now, you might suppose that’s the joke: Clouseau solving the case by means of a deductive error that would be spotted by your average Encyclopedia-Brown-reading third-grader. But that’s not the joke, at least not in any intentional sense. One of the (many) ways in which Martin and his collaborators have pureed Clouseau into a mush test-marketed to offend no constituency (except any minimal standard of discernment) is by turning the unvarnished imbecile portrayed by Peter Sellers into a kind of idiot savant who, when he’s not accidentally burning down restaurants or impersonating the Pope, trades Holmesian inferences with fellow detectives. (How is your hip injury? he asks one, after noting a slight wear on the side of one shoe sole.) No, Clouseau’s triumph of detection, nonsensical though it may be, is intended to be genuine.
Is this nit-picking? I suppose it would be if this instance of slipshod plotting weren’t so characteristic, if the film itself were something other than the gradual accretion of nits--of tepid jokes, lifeless physical comedy, and when-do-I-get-my-paycheck performances--into one heaping pile of nit. Making the wasteful exercise still more depressing is the fact that the movie is populated with performers who might easily have devoted their time to more worthwhile projects, like filming liquor ads for Japanese television. The cast includes John Cleese (inheriting the role of Chief Inspector Dreyfus from a wisely absent Kevin Kline), Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer, Alfred Molina, Jeremy Irons, Lily Tomlin, and legendary French singer Johnny Hallyday, and one hopes that all of them fled the scene of this crime with the same furtive alacrity as the Tornado exiting the Louvre.
At the center of it all is Martin, who also co-wrote the script, and who in both capacities has wiped the material clean of any hint of bite or surprise. Unlike Sellers, whose restless neurosis lent an edge of uncertainty to even Clouseau’s silliest shenanigans, Martin strives for cuteness with every fiber of his being. Humor this broad needs a hint of mania behind it, but the movie has all the recklessness of a dozy tabby in a china shop. The violent lessons in the art of ambush that were once administered by Cato have now been outsourced to two karate-loving preadolescent boys. And though it is the raison d’etre of the entire enterprise, Martin’s accent is neither the slightest bit Gallic nor possessed of the bravura weirdness that powered Sellers’s (or, more recently, any of half a dozen of Sacha Baron Cohen’s). Worse, his flabby inflections seem to have provided the model for the rest of the cast’s efforts--Mortimer’s tonguey French, Garcia’s pasta-ad Italian. (At least they tried: Cleese couldn’t even be bothered.)
Indeed, if half-hearted remakes of fondly remembered films (and their still more lifeless sequels) are one of the most acute ills currently plaguing Hollywood, Martin is arguably the primary vector by which the malady is transmitted: Father of the Bride and Father of the Bride 2; Cheaper by the Dozen and Cheaper by the Dozen 2; The Pink Panther and The Pink Panther 2. His remake of Topper is already slated for next year, presumably dragging another sequel (Toppest?) in its wake. And then, who knows? A wan echo of Harvey? Bringing Up Baby 2: Leopards on the Loose? The mind reels. The stomach churns.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.