Finally unleashed after multiple delays, “The Pink Panther” is neither the disaster one might have suspected nor a fully realized madcap farce; rather, Steve Martin’s foray as Inspector Clouseau exhibits bursts of wild-and-craziness, but hardly enough to sustain even its relatively brief running time. The result is a feature-length “Saturday Night Live” sketch, with arid stretches interrupted by moments of irresistible silliness. The real question is whom this juvenile revival will attract, given that the franchise would seem to possess little resonance among modern youths — its most likely audience — beyond Henry Mancini’s marvelously playful original score.
Using the title of the 1964 original but little else, Martin (who shares script credit) starts out as Officer Clouseau, whose ineptitude catches the eye of Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, recycling his “French Kiss” accent). With France’s soccer coach murdered and his famous Pink Panther diamond stolen, Dreyfus sees an opportunity to achieve fame and renown — especially if he solves the cases after the newly promoted Clouseau bumbles it.
So after a moribund introductory sequence, Clouseau is let loose on Paris, where he engages in a series of pratfalls, misunderstandings and puns, pursuing suspects that include the victim’s girlfriend Xania (Beyonce Knowles), an international pop star. He’s also saddled with a stoic sidekick, Ponton (Jean Reno), whose job is to report back to Dreyfus.
Having recently ventilated his serious side in “Shopgirl,” Martin has considerable fun with Clouseau’s mangled English (perhaps the funniest scene has him struggling to pronounce “hamburger”) and subtly pays tribute to Peter Sellers. Part of that homage entails turning earlier “Panther” moments on their head — a gag featuring a runaway globe, for example, or his decision to periodically attack Ponton the way Cato once assaulted Sellers’ Clouseau.
Reunited with “Cheaper by the Dozen” director Shawn Levy, Martin’s Clouseau also overwhelms those around him in much the way Sellers did, including Emily Mortimer as a coworker with whom he keeps becoming physically entangled, as well as Kristin Chenoweth and Roger Rees, whose talents are mostly wasted. Ditto for Knowles, who isn’t stretching by playing a pop diva and, as in her “Austin Powers” assignment, is again relegated to the status of gorgeous prop.
“Stop browbeating her!” he chides Ponton for interrogating Xania. “Can’t you see she’s sexy?”
Shot in Paris and New York with side trips to Italy and Prague, at its best this new “Pink Panther” is a hit and largely miss exercise — a glass about three-quarters empty or one-quarter full, depending on one’s eagerness to succumb. Granted, there are some genuine chuckles amid the slapstick, wordplay and flatulence (yes, flatulence), but ultimately the pic can’t deliver a consistent level of lunacy. (It’s only fair to say that the later Sellers films were equally deficient and, as HBO’s recent biopic made clear, the star was completely miserable doing them.)
Notably, in a sign of MGM synergy there’s an uncredited cameo by a dashing Agent 006, which at first seems quite clever. Even that, though, doesn’t really go anywhere, providing additional evidence that reloading 40-year-old franchises isn’t always as simple as just slipping a new star into the old wardrobe.