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No Sellers, No Buyers

A classic character is pointlessly resurrected.

It's easy to romanticize the earlier entries in this franchise, especially when the new film fills out Clouseau's curriculum vitae by showing us, for example, that he is prone to severe bouts of flatulence. But the immortal moments of those older movies tend to emphasize how much they depended on the air of divine madness Sellers brought to the screen, the weird pathos he injected into the role. The Inspector's rebuke of a blind street entertainer and his "chimpanzee minkey" — a bit beloved by all Clouseau fans — appears in the mostly drab "The Return of the Pink Panther" (1975). In Sellers' hands, Clouseau is the ultimate example of a functionary who has garbed himself in the glory of the Code Napoleon in order to hide his mediocrity from the world. He's a representative man of the 20th century, the anti-007.

By contrast, Steve Martin, who shares writing credits here, approaches the part in a calculating way, as if he were constantly trying to figure out how to put his own stamp on the role. As a result, the loosely strung together episodes that make up the film give the impression of a gambler cautiously distributing his bets as his pile shrinks chip by chip. As if to make up for the shtick about passing gas, he sounds a (slightly) more sophisticated note by giving us Clouseau's rather unorthodox take on gender politics in the office. Intent on bringing Clouseau into our times, he makes him a Viagra enthusiast. But all this effort yields only marginal results.

The very idea of a Clouseau is, of course, little more than a rack on which to hang bits of comic business, but this plot is thin even by the standards of its predecessors. As the film opens, France is in shock over the death of a soccer coach, who has been felled by a poison dart in a moment of triumph. The famed Pink Panther diamond, which he wore as a ring and which looks as if it were dispensed from a machine in a supermarket entranceway, has been spirited away.

Eager for glory, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, vainly trying to adopt a French accent) casts about for the most incompetent gendarme in the land to take the case so that at the appropriate moment he himself can swoop in and save the day. (If you wonder why Dreyfus doesn't just solve the crime himself, you are too deep a thinker to enjoy this film.) Naturally, he hits upon Clouseau, assigning him a partner (the glowering Jean Reno) who's supposed to report back on the bumbler's activities.

Pretexts for the Viagra jokes are provided by the soccer coach's former girlfriend (Beyoncé Knowles) and Dreyfus' secretary (Emily Mortimer). There's lots of cartoonish mayhem, and now and then a chuckle at Clouseau's expense, most memorably at his attempt to master the elusive pronunciation of "hamburger." By the time the case is hastily wrapped up in a brief speech at the end, you've mostly forgotten just what it was all about in the first place.

In a particularly gratuitous episode, Clouseau encounters the suave British secret agent 006, played by an uncredited Clive Owen. In real life, Owen has repeatedly turned down the part of 007, a decision he recently explained by saying, "I never understood what I would have been able to add to the role, or how I could play a character who has already been defined in the past. For me, Sean Connery is the real James Bond." Sorry, Roger, Timothy and Pierce. And sorry, Steve. Peter Sellers is the real Inspector Clouseau. (PG) 93 min. ** S

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