It first happened to me back in the '80s, when a friend of mine told me he'd just had to explain to his younger sister that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings. Suddenly, at age 25, I felt very old. Pop culture has this way of moving on, whether we want it to or not. What were once the New Kids on the Block are soon the Old Folks at Home. Or, as I like to point out to people, just to freak them out a little bit, Madonna will one day die of old age (if she's lucky). So will Britney Spears. Of course, some would argue that Madonna already died of old age. As far as the zeitgeist is concerned, she passed her sell-by date sometime in the '80s, a decade she pretty much owned. And no amount of subsequent shape-shifting on her part has been able to change that. Pop culture moved on, whether she wanted it to or not.
Steve Martin pretty much owned the '70s ' a nice big piece of it, anyway. Coming from California with a banjo on his knee, Martin helped turn standup comedians into rock stars, playing the same arenas and selling just as many records. And he did it through sheer ineptitude (the appearance of sheer ineptitude, that is). "A professional comedian with no act and supreme confidence" ' that's how Martin described the persona that most of us prefer to remember as "the wild and crazy guy." While other comedians were trying to come up with the best jokes possible, ones that would "kill," Martin tried to come up with the worst jokes imaginable, ones that were dead on arrival. Everything he did was in quotes, comedy about comedy. And it seemed very funny ' important, even ''at the time.
It didn't last. (It never does.) Martin retired from standup comedy in 1980, fed up with audiences mouthing the punch lines. Hollywood came calling, and for a while there it looked like Martin might be the next Jerry Lewis; The Jerk was a huge hit. But like so many former standup comics, he's had trouble translating his sense of humor to the big screen. An early association with "director" Carl Reiner (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains) suggested that Martin didn't know exactly who he wanted to be. Later, the movies of his that worked best were the ones he wrote himself, relaxed romantic comedies like L.A. Story and Roxanne. But where did the wild and crazy guy go? And what's up with those paterfamilias roles in Father of the Bride and Cheaper by the Dozen? Does he really need the money that bad?
Whatever the explanation, Martin hasn't seemed very funny in recent years, not since Bowfinger (which he wrote). And when I first heard that he was going to have a go at Inspector Clouseau in a prequel/sequel (or is it a remix?) of The Pink Panther, I assumed he'd phone it in, collect a nice little paycheck. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Stepping into shoes that Peter Sellers used to slip on many a banana peel with, Martin has come up with a Clouseau all his own. He's even come up with his own French-fried accent, straying yet farther from the English language ' "Song Cue" for "Thank You," "For Once" for "France." There's an instant-classic bit where Martin's Clouseau, planning a trip to New York, is taught how to pronounce "hamburger." The closest he gets is "damburgert."
Sellers invented the role, an act of genius worthy of the LÃgion d'honneur. And it's surprising, in his five outings as the village idiot of French crime investigation, how little he relied on words. His Clouseau was part Sherlock Holmes, part James Bond, but mostly an imbecile, capable of bringing down the Eiffel Tower without realizing he'd even passed by it. And Blake Edwards, who wrote, directed and produced the Pink Panther movies, gave Sellers plenty of room to wreak havoc, filling the gaps in the dialogue with Henry Mancini's endless variations on a theme that's come to stand for the brash innocence of Kennedy-era America. The movies themselves varied in quality, and none were particularly good. But Sellers would leave his mark on such defective detectives as Columbo, Fletch and Monk.
And, of course, Martin's Clouseau. When we first see him, unknowingly laying waste to an old lady with a cane and an old man in a wheelchair, we're not sure it's going to work. Martin's better-looking than Sellers ' handsome, even. And there's a physical grace that Sellers would have subverted one way or another. Martin does too, hunching his shoulders like a toy soldier, but he does most of his acting with his face, which he shifts from wide-eyed wonder to slit-eyed suspicion at a moment's notice. With his white hair and prim little mustache, Martin resembles late-career Chaplin (Monsieur Verdoux) or late-career Olivier (A Little Romance) ' a certain prissiness he's been mining since the old standup days. And what is Clouseau if not the wild and crazy guy, only more finicky, more persnickety?
Plot-wise, The Pink Panther isn't much more than a clothesline to pin gags on. It combines the diamond-theft case of the original with the murder case of its immediate successor, A Shot in the Dark. And it gives a rather prominent role to Chief Inspector Dreyfus, here graciously underplayed by Kevin Kline, who hasn't always been so gracious in the past. Interested in furthering his own career, Dreyfus brings in Clouseau to solve the murder/theft of the French national-team soccer coach and his eponymous diamond. (His fiancÃe? An international pop star played by international pop star BÃyonce Knowles, who should hold on to her day job.) When it's ultimately revealed that Clouseau hasn't a clue, Dreyfus will be there, ready to reveal the burglar and revile the bungler. But what if the bungler bungles his way to a collar?
More important, what if the bungler is revealed to speak Chinese and be on intimate terms with the most esoteric French statutes? Directed by Shawn Levy, who lacks Edwards' flair for slapstick but has a few other cinematic tricks up his sleeve, The Pink Panther imagines a Clouseau who knows a lot more than he lets on, even to himself. And Martin does a brilliant job of playing both the dimness and the occasional flashes of light. The movie's full of pratfalls, a comic device that can be traced back to the Pleistocene Epoch. But it's the verbal pratfalls, most of them written by Martin himself, that bring this long-dead franchise back to life. The movie sags a little toward the end, a soufflÃ losing air, but who cares? So adept at playing inept, Martin proves that, given enough inspiration, everything old is new again.