Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Steve Martin slums: notes on Born Standing Up and The Pink Panther (2006)

Steve Martin. The man, the legend, the star of mediocre Pink Panther movies. For Hitsville, Bill Wyman notes how The New York Times has been kind enough to ignore the upcoming sequel to 2006's Pink Panther and promote Steve's new banjo cd instead. Bill also points out that the film, due out on Friday, "scored an extraordinarily low 38 on Metacritic."

All of this guided me back to Steve's 2007 biography of his stand-up career entitled Born Standing Up. I find the book fascinating, in part because Mr. Martin lays out the theoretical underpinnings of his phenomenally succcessful stand-up career between 1975 and 1981. It took him over a thousand performances to reach that level of stadium-filled success, and I enjoyed reading about his insights into the process. For instance, one day he decided that his act had to be absolutely original. On another day, he took a cue from Lewis Carroll's nonsense syllogisms to write things like "I'm not going home tonight; I'm going to Bananaland, a place where only two things are true, only two things: One, all chairs are green; and two, no chairs are green." Later still, he determined that an act may work better if there are no punchlines. Furthermore, he learned how to apply the mysteriously e. e. cummings' quote "Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement." As you read the book, you get to witness Martin take apart his act and reassemble it into something highly conceptual, brilliant, and also very funny.

Where does that leave us with this weekend's dreaded sequel? I don't really presume to know, but I thought I'd use this opportunity to recycle a 2006 pre-blogging review of the previous The Pink Panther, which was originally entitled "Martin Slums in Paris":

With the immortal Peter Sellers, the Pink Panther series went through an untold number of sequels. With its Henry Mancini signature song and its pleasing cartoon credit sequences, one could always be assured a reasonably humorous time as Inspector Clouseau absurdly and self-confidently bumbled his way into solving the crime, usually involving a pink panther thief and an endlessly aggravated Chief Inspector Dreyfus. The series creator, Blake Edwards, had a shameless love for the visual gag--the broader the better. The films combined picture-postcard versions of Paris with the light mockery of a British actor playing an idiot Frenchman. One could always claim that Sellers was wasting his talent, but who cared when the films were funny? In this way, comedy has a way of shutting down all criticism in advance.

Now, in an era when Hollywood strip mines familiar storylines to squeeze out its last assured dollar (Final Destination 3 anyone?), Steve Martin has taken a break from starring in Cheaper by the Dozen films to assume the mantle of Clouseau. Admittedly, the film is funny much of the time. This Pink Panther was originally slated to be released in September of 2005, but MGM thought it needed tweaking, so now it appears four months later to coincide roughly with Valentine’s Day. One can imagine Steve Martin carefully revising and refining every pratfall, poot joke, and silly outfit. As Inspector Clouseau, he wears high water pants, striped socks, and a pencil moustache. His contemporary version of Paris is like a shiny theme park, with the Eiffel Tower twinkling like a Christmas tree over the Seine. Kevin Kline takes over the role of the self-important Dreyfus who intentionally hires the most incompetent man he can think of (Clouseau) to solve the crime of the murder of a prominent soccer coach. Dreyfus does this so that he can solve the crime on his own, and therefore win the French Medal of Honor.

So how much does Steve Martin slum his way through this prefab concoction directed by Shawn Levy? He has a ridiculous French accent that implies a lisp, pronouncing France as “Fwance.” One is struck by how often in this expensive production the best jokes are very simple. Clouseau has difficulty pronouncing the word hamburger, and that scene with a speech coach works better in its way than his accidental flooding and burning of a hotel room. When it comes to the crime in question, one gets a ridiculously hyped scene involving Jason Statham presiding over a stadium full of screaming fans. After his soccer team wins in overtime with a dramatic butterfly kick to the goal, he kisses the “international pop star” Beyonce Knowles, and then abruptly keels over dead with a poison dart in his neck. As the crowd gasps, we notice that his massively gaudy Pink Panther ring has been stolen too.

Working in the rapid-fire comic vein of the Naked Gun films and with obvious allusions to Austin Powers, Martin keeps one kind of amused. Beyonce Knowles doesn’t seem to mind playing a decorative female bauble who sings occasionally, just as she did in Goldmember. Steve Martin even slightly lampoons his own tendency to bed disproportionately young starlets in recent movies when his character loses his Viagra pill down the hotel sink. The perpetually sad-eyed French film star Jean Reno plays a good straight man and sidekick. He looks on bemused by all these Americans and their feeble mockery of the more cultured French. The film works on its low level, but I miss Steve Martin’s more original and edgier work in films like LA Story and Roxanne. With its endlessly recycled gags, The Pink Panther encourages a cultural amnesia of the safe, the bland, and the mass-marketed, a kind of fast food for the eyes. In one scene, Clouseau asks a casino owner if he can look at his “big brass bowls,” but with his accent it sounds like something else. That’s about as edgy as this film gets.


Jason Bellamy said...

I was glad to read this. I didn't see Martin's previous "Pink Panther" movie and I won't see this one. Just can't. The previews make it seem so... beneath him.

I love the guy. In addition to a few titles you mention, I could watch "Parenthood" or "Father of the Bride" pretty much any day of the week because Martin is so fantastic. But I think I like him for his Steve-ness. I'm not sure I really care to see him as another character.

As for "Born Standing Up," I listened to his audio version of it over the summer as I was marathon training. It took only two long runs to get through it, and then the following week I listened to part of it again. He's a terrific storyteller. And I think it's perfect that he figured out his magic by working at Disneyland which still is so magical to me.

Anyway, I don't really have a point here. Just thanks!

FilmDr said...

My pleasure, Jason. I find it interesting how Martin can be so cerebral and mindless almost simultaneously, depending on which book or movie of his you are looking at.