A collapsed studio, poor buzz, and release date hopscotch all fed expectations that the new Pink Panther would be a cataclysm worthy of Inspector Clouseau himself. But really, how bad could it be? This franchise had already plumbed the depths of ineptitude in world-historic fashion—notoriously in Trail of the Pink Panther, which constructed a lead performance entirely from outtakes two years after its star’s death. The most that can be said for this strenuously bland reconstitution is that Steve Martin was clearly alive during filming. But just how alive, unfortunately, is at issue.
Easily the funniest actor to attempt Clouseau’s shtick apart from Peter Sellers (Alan Arkin, Roberto Benigni, and even a pseudonymous Roger Moore have taken stabs), Martin nevertheless lacks the physical, uh, grace that the role requires. With his uncanny ability to bump into furniture as if by accident, Sellers was impossibly organic as Clouseau—and particularly in A Shot in the Dark (1964), Blake Edwards would accentuate Clouseau’s antics with widescreen long takes, allowing each scene’s slow-burning chaos to spin out of control while Sellers unselfconsciously pretended not to notice.
Martin sticks mostly to middle shot and dons an overcooked Pepé Le Pew accent, a strategy that flounders whenever Clouseau isn’t agonizing over the pronunciation of “hamburger.” A lone camouflage gag notwithstanding, director Shawn Levy exerts minimal visual imagination; indeed, fans will be horrified to learn that of all 10 Panther installments, this is the first that hasn’t been shot in ‘Scope. It goes without saying that the mystery was an afterthought: When France’s head soccer coach (Jason Statham) takes a poison dart to the neck—and his diamond, the storied pink panther, is stolen—Clouseau is assigned to crack the case, assisted by a cutely bespectacled secretary (Emily Mortimer) and karate-proficient sidekick (Jean Reno), and sporadically hampered by the jealous Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, too straitlaced for Herbert Lom’s character).
As in all the late Panther movies, the jokes that truly bomb—a Clive Owen cameo as “agent 006”; an airport luggage/weaponry swap, for post–9-11 chuckles—are almost welcome for perking things up. The lack of energy suggests the film might as well have been constructed from outtakes; Beyoncé is relegated to a bystander role, and the denouement—say zat in a Clouseau accent!— arrives abruptly, but not soon enough. Why update the material with Viagra humor when the only actor to truly assimilate Clouseau has been in career obsolescence for a decade? That actor, of course, is Leslie Nielsen.