You would have thought that he would have learned his lesson after reviving the classic comic character of Sgt Bilko for the screen, but it seems that Steve Martin pays little attention to critics. Having failed to do justice to American comedian Phil Silvers’ most famous creation, Martin has now decided to attempt to pick up the mantle of the best-loved character of that most versatile of British actors, Peter Sellers, by donning the trademark moustache and trenchcoat of bumbling French detective Inspector Clouseau.
Thankfully, at least, some semblance of the dignity of the original Pink Panther movies can be salvaged by the fact that this is not an attempt at a straight remake, but instead simply has the same name as the 1964 film which first introduced the world to the character. As such, it can be safely ignored and filed alongside those other faintly embarrassing attempts by people other than Peter Sellers to take on the mantle of Clouseau – Alan Arkin in 1968’s Inspector Clouseau, Roger Moore in 1983’s Curse of the Pink Panther and Roberto Benigni (effectively) in 1993’s Son of the Pink Panther.
The added problem is that director Shawn Levy, probably best known for the tedious 2003 Steve Martin vehicle Cheaper by the Dozen, is no Blake Edwards, the director of the original films and co-creator of the character. The humour is not as effortlessly silly, the pacing not as natural, sight gags that require quick resolutions are left hanging too long, and Levy somehow fails to make Martin’s Clouseau seem the most compelling character even though the star co-wrote the script.
Instead it is Kevin Kline as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, a character originally created by the superb Herbert Lom in 1964’s sequel A Shot in the Dark, who here seems the most entertaining – largely thanks to Kline’s rather more laidback and likeable approach to comedy. Meanwhile Jean Reno – apparently the only Frenchman capable of getting work in Hollywood these days – is likewise far more interesting to watch than Martin as his straight-man sidekick.
Martin’s trademark mania always seems rather forced, especially when playing characters who aren’t simply an extension of his old stand-up persona. With Kline and Reno as a contrast, his performance here seems even more forced than it would merely with the memories of Sellers to detract from efforts to enjoy this film in its own right.
Much as Clouseau lacks James Bond’s skills, he also lacks Bond’s ability to be played by anyone other than the original actor. So much was Sellers tied to the role, they even used archive footage of the comic for 1982’s Trail of the Pink Panther, released two years after his death in a desperate attempt to keep the franchise going. As it stands, the five Pink Panther movies Sellers made while alive and the cartoon character of the same name, who originated in the first movie’s title sequence, remain the character’s best legacy. As this is not the first time that Sellers’ memory has been defiled by an attempt to revive the Clouseau franchise, it would be churlish to be anything other than disappointed. But the major question, beyond the obvious why bother, is why Steve Martin? He is utterly unsuited for this kind of humour, and utterly wrong for the part. The answer, sadly, seems simply to be “his ego”.