Pink Panther, Dead Horse

From the Chicago Reader (September 3, 1993). — J.R.


* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Blake Edwards

Written by Edwards, Madeline Sunshine, and Steve Sunshine

With Roberto Benigni, Claudia Cardinale, Herbert Lom, Debrah Farentino, Robert Davi, Shabana Azmi, and Burt Kwouk.

Son of the Pink Panther is the eighth or ninth Pink Panther movie, depending on how you keep count — the press materials choose to ignore Bud Yorkin’s 1968 Inspector Clouseau with Alan Arkin, a flop that pleased no one. It also represents the third time writer-director Blake Edwards has resumed the series after announcing it was definitively over. The first dormant period was 1965-’74, after the successive and successful releases of The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark in 1964. The second, 1979-’81, followed The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) — which were even more successful at the box office than the first two.

Peter Sellers, the star of the series, died in 1980. But with a perversity and cynicism matched only by commercial greed, Edwards managed to grind out two more Clouseau films in the 80s, Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), which I’ve never managed to bring myself to see. The first, which “starred” Sellers, relied on discarded sequences, retakes, and clips from the earlier movies, supplemented by shots of stand-ins and periodic, strategic disappearances of Clouseau from the plot. The second film was actually predicated on the character’s sustained absence.

To the best of my knowledge, neither of these postmortem productions performed nearly as well commercially as the preceding five features. Yet as Edwards himself has indicated, hopes of striking paydirt again after a string of relative flops persuaded him to reanimate the series.

His new star is Roberto Benigni, a rather lovable Italian comic best known in the U.S. for his roles in two Jim Jarmusch features, Down by Law and Night on Earth. In Italy he’s much better known for his taboo-breaking TV work, his leading role in the most recent Fellini feature (The Voice of the Moon), and his own features as writer, director, and star (the last of these, Johnny Stecchino — reportedly the highest-grossing film in the history of Italian cinema — had a brief run here in a truncated version).

Benigni’s comic persona (volatile, excitable, polymorphous-perverse, and generally infantile) is quite different from that of Sellers (passive, poker-faced, aphysical), which leads one to reflect on what exactly a Pink Panther comedy is. In Son of the Pink Panther Benigni plays Jacques Gambrelli, a gendarme living with his Italian mother (Claudia Cardinale) in the south of France — a holy fool with a romantic soul and a passion for quoting poetry who proves to be the illegitimate son of Clouseau (though he becomes aware of this only belatedly) and helps to defeat a band of kidnappers who are roughly equivalent to the villains of the earlier pictures. Unfortunately, the mechanics needed to keep the standard kidnapping plot turning take up too much of the movie; most of the gags seem to take place around the edges of this complicated nothingness.

Cardinale played a leading part in The Pink Panther, but confusingly enough, the character she plays here is called Maria Gambrelli, the name of the character played by Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark. Lugosh — the imaginary Middle Eastern country in The Return of the Pink Panther, Trail of the Pink Panther, and Curse of the Pink Panther — is trotted out again, and Edwards also brings back the three most familiar characters from the previous pictures: Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), black-belt “houseboy” Cato (Burt Kwouk), and disguise master Dr. Balls (Graham Stark). But these characters have become decidedly dustier and more subdued. This time Dreyfus, for instance, doesn’t descend into madness or hatch murder plots as a result of Clouseau Junior’s incompetence; he may still have a twitch, but he gets along so well with Junior’s mother that he winds up marrying her.