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Think 'Pink' Steve Martin pays homage to series while elevating the writing

"The Pink Panther" won't replace the original film series, but it's clever enough on its own terms. This film strains to be funny at every level, sometimes trying too hard to generate lowbrow laughs. It pays affectionate homage to its predecessor while failing to match its artistic flair.

The new "Pink Panther" rises above the usual Hollywood remake and sparkles with occasional panache. A witty screenplay, co-written by star Steve Martin and Len Blum, elevates this film. They reinvent Blake Edwards' cult film franchise about a bumbling French sleuth for the "Austin Powers" generation. The original's leering, slapstick humor has been reworked for the 21st century, mixed in with jokes about cell phones, the Internet and airport security.

Blum and Martin create a prequel set without apologies in present-day Paris. Clouseau has been assigned a complicated first case. He must find out who murdered Jacquard, a leading French soccer coach, and who stole Jacquard's ring, which features the infamous Pink Panther diamond. While on the case, Clouseau must travel to New York City, where he attempts an unconvincing American accent, eats hamburgers for the first time, and fools no one wearing an "I Love NY" baseball cap. In a nod to another long-running film series, Clouseau receives some unexpected help from the debonair Agent 006. Or as Clouseau calls him, "one number short of the big one."

It's a film where the scatological co-exists with the philosophical. As in the original, pratfalls abound. In one memorable running gag, Clouseau creates havoc when he accidentally sets a large globe rolling into the crowded Parisian streets. The remake maintains a vestige of the original's leering sexual humor. Clouseau still fumbles around beautiful women, but now he warns about the dangers of sexual harassment before he pats his secretary's derriere.

In taking on the role of Inspector Clouseau, Martin pays homage to his predecessor, Peter Sellers, without resorting to mere mimicry. He emulates Sellers' dry comic timing while adding a few moments of his own goofiness (most memorably when Clouseau first tastes a hamburger). All of Sellers' Clouseau hallmarks are here: the impossibly thick Gallic accent, the silly mustache, the trench coat, the overconfident strut. Physically, Martin adds his own stamp to Clouseau by keeping his now-trademark white hair. He also gives the inspector a moment of pathos when Clouseau discovers that he has been assigned the case merely to pave the way for Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) to take over. It's a flash of sentiment quickly swept aside for another joke. While a distraught Clouseau waits to download a ringtone from the Internet, he manages to cause an electronic blackout over all of Paris.

Martin's Clouseau shows more intellectual acumen than the original was allowed. He may be bumbling, but he solves the case using an inexplicable command of linguistics and international law that would defy Sherlock Holmes.

The supporting cast members attack their roles with brio. Kline captures Dreyfus' puffed arrogance without resorting to predecessor Herbert Lom's annoying eye tics. As Gendarme Gilbert Ponton, the "spy" sent to observe Clouseau's progress, Jean Reno offers a stern foil to Martin's comic antics. Emily Mortimer plays Clouseau's hapless secretary, Nicole, as a winsome ugly duckling.

Beyonce Knowles is not always convincing as Xania, the pop star who is one of Clouseau's prime suspects, but she always looks glamorous. Knowles appears uncomfortable being the seductress, but perhaps it's because she is saddled with some of the film's blandest dialogue.

As a director, Simon Levy may lack Edwards' stylish aplomb, but he clearly understands comic timing. Levy makes every pratfall count. A few gags go on for too long, but Levy maintains a breezy pace with cinematography that celebrates the sumptuous Parisian scenery.

2.5 stars (out of 4)


STARRING: Steve Martin, Kevin Kline, Beyonce Knowles, Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer

DIRECTOR: Shawn Levy

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

RATING: PG for mild violence, scatological humor and sexual situations

THE LOWDOWN: Inspector Jacques Clouseau must solve his first case in this prequel to the classic film series about a bumbling French sleuth.

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