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by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & The Pink Panther & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & iven the unenviable task of 1) watching and 2) reviewing MGM's new Pink Panther prequel, I feel the need to get two things out of the way before we begin.

This isn't going to be a Steve-Martin-is-no-Peter-Sellers critique. I don't care. I have no great love for Sellers' work in the Pink Panther series. I first saw him in Being There and Dr. Strangelove, and I still love his Chauncey Gardiner far more than his Jacques Clouseau. So I won't be joining you Sellers fans on that pointless little bit of pop snobbery.

Nor will I complain about the way Hollywood has (once again) co-opted a classic and re-made it for purely profit-driven reasons. There were nine previous Pink Panther movies, six with Sellers but another three without him (Alan Arkin and Roger Moore each took a stab at Clouseau; Roberto Benigni played Jacques Jr). Most of them weren't very good. So there will be no anti-studio, anti-capitalist indignation here, either. (One film, Trail of the Pink Panther, was made -- using previously unused footage -- two years after Sellers' death. If you want to get pissed at studio greed, rail against that film, not this latest one.)

That doesn't mean, however, that I enjoyed Steve Martin's crack at The Pink Panther. (You Sellers fans would have liked that, wouldn't you?) No, this is a really bad movie, but you don't need any fanboy preening or semi-academic meditations on the studio system to understand why. It sucks for infinitely simpler reasons. Namely: It's not funny. Further: It's no damn fun. Those are different things. Funny is how much you laugh; fun is a factor of general enjoyment. I didn't laugh until roughly 60 minutes in. I didn't start having fun until about 10 minutes later. For a film that clocks in at 90 minutes, that's not nearly enough of either.

The slapstick is overwrought, takes too long to set up and offers no payoff. Ever. The physical humor doesn't ramp up until an hour in, when a very funny martial arts scene comes from nowhere and sets things rolling. Too bad the limp slapstick soon returns and grinds things back to a halt. Similarly, Martin's affected accent and mannerisms aren't given any interesting situations to play off. Only after he meets with an accent coach (a scene you'll recognize from the trailer) does the voice come to the forefront. That's exactly the point when Martin's queer mannerisms kick in as well. His pursed lips and pained expression trying to pronounce "hamburger" in an American accent is quite funny, as is his performance through much of the rest of the film.

Sellers said that the secret to Clouseau was his monstrous ego. Watching Martin's eyes narrow and his lips tighten every time he does something moronic is an homage to this, but also an extrapolation. It's the steely resolve of a klutz trying to swim upstream against his own incompetence. The film gets better as it goes on because we slowly realize that Martin's Clouseau understands the depths of his incompetence -- a side Sellers never showed. It's the only remotely original thing this Pink Panther does, and it might have been enough to right the ship, if it had arrived earlier. Like, say, from the beginning.

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