Once upon a time Steve Martin was funny. Really, really funny and not just his brilliant stand-up years. Films like The Jerk, All of Me, The Man With Two Brains and L.A. Story expertly exploited his goofball charm and impeccable sense of comic timing. Then he got rich and started a really expensive art collection and accepted a seemingly endless succession of check-cashing roles as a bumbling dad (Cheaper by the Dozen, Father Of The Bride, Bringing Down The House) none of which were particularly funny.
At best count, it's been seven years since Martin has been truly funny. Though 1999's Bowfinger didn't compare with the best of his early work, it was still a genuinely entertaining comedy with moments of subversive humor.
Occasionally the comedian dips into his "blue period," appearing in indie-flavored films (Novocaine, The Spanish Prisoner), penning theatrical plays and contributing witty essays to The New Yorker. These and his mediocre novella Shopgirl (and its vaguely creepy film adaptation) suggest that Martin is desperate to reinvent himself as a serious artist. Still, the bread and butter of his career has been inoffensive and unimaginative Hollywood pap.
Taking on the role of Inspector Clouseau in this needlessly updated Pink Panther movie, we see hints of the comic Martin used to be. Amid the films' relentlessly idiotic and predictable pratfalls, there are real instances of invention and wit. But it's too bad that Martin chose a role indelibly defined by another: Peter Sellers, one the greatest comic actors of all time. Worse still, he's teamed up with his lackluster director from Cheaper by the Dozen, Shawn Levy (who also directed Just Married).
The update concerns the murder of wealthy soccer coach Yves Gluant (Jason Statham) and the theft of his Pink Panther diamond. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, stranded in a thankless role) assigns the colossally inept Jacques Clouseau (Martin) to the case as a decoy to draw the press' attention away from his own investigation. The bumbling detective interviews suspects like Gluant's fiancee (eye candy Beyoncé Knowles) and his trainer Yuri (Henry Czerny) while leaving in his wake a path of havoc and destruction.
Much like the original Pink Panther movies, the plot is a threadbare course for Clouseau to bumble his way along. Sporting a faux-French accent that sounds more like a lispy speech impediment, Martin plays the detective like a live-action cartoon; tripping, falling and farting his way through the action.
Though the choice is far from terrible, it makes you miss the understated genius of Peter Sellers all the more. His sublimely inept Inspector was the perfect mix of gallant fool and deadpan stupidity. With the implacable certainty that he was the most cunning man in any room, Seller's Clouseau responded to the flaming chaos of his incompetence with an "I meant to do that" shrug. The actor understood that his straight-faced reaction to a daisy-chain of pratfalls garnered big laughs.
In contrast, Levy and Martin are convinced the pratfall is gold. Using the Naked Gun approach to comedy, they desperately throw every stupid gaffe, goof and boner they can at the screen, hoping some of it will stick. As a result, nothing evolves naturally and everything feels forced. You can see many of the jokes coming from a mile away. Still, a dozen or so hit the mark. In particular, Clouseau's tortured attempt to pronounce the word "hamburger" earns its yuks.
Though lacking Sellers' pokerfaced brilliance, Steve Martin still has the comedic chops to impress. What he needs is a better director. Blake Edwards, who helmed the original Pink Panther movies, had a genuine gift for slapstick. Unlike Levy, he knew how to set a gag in motion and give his actors the room to play it out. Given Martin's recent batting average he might want to find collaborators who know how to make comedy rather than money.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].