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'Pink Panther' roars with laughter

Steve Martin's role as Inspector Clouseau reminds us how funny he can be.

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I yield to no one in my admiration for Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, but what do you know - Steve Martin is just as funny. He doesn't try to imitate Sellers but instead puts his own distinctive spin on the bumbling detective. This must be the first time that a great comic has taken over the signature role of another great comic and made it his own.

It might seem at first that Clouseau and Martin are not a good fit. Apparently Martin felt the same way; he initially rejected the part when it was offered to him. But it turns out that the casting is perfect.

Martin has been mired in family comedies like the "Cheaper By the Dozen" series where he doesn't really get to cut loose, so many of us may have forgotten just how hilarious he can be. As Clouseau, he is as peerlessly silly as he was in "The Jerk," "The Man With Two Brains," and "All of Me." He is even reminiscent of the Cyrano character from "Roxanne." Like that other ardent romancer, his Clouseau is battling a handicap - in this case, extreme stupidity - and against all odds he makes the man deeply touching.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the murder of a famous French soccer coach and the mysterious disappearance of the Pink Panther diamond ring intended for his fiancée (Beyoncé Knowles). For nefarious reasons of his own, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (an expertly reined-in Kevin Kline) brings in Clouseau from the hinterlands to crack the case and teams him with a stone-faced gendarme (Jean Reno).

That stone face is the perfect comic complement to Martin's, which is always in motion. He darts his narrowed eyes for danger and sniffs the atmosphere for clues only he can detect. With his little mustache - a curvy wing beneath each nostril - Clouseau at times resembles Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux. His French accent, with its dropped aitches and low-slung vowels, is a thing of beauty. (A scene where an increasingly exasperated Clouseau is coached to say the word "hamburger" is an instant classic.) Martin understands that perhaps the first prerequisite of a great funnyman is the invention of a language, a way of speaking, that is his alone.

The second prerequisite is that he move like no one else, and Martin, who at his peak is as comically agile as Buster Keaton, understands that, too. The staging of the physical comedy in "The Pink Panther" is not always adept - director Shawn Levy is no Blake Edwards - but Martin, who co-wrote the screenplay, keeps spinning in his own orbit anyway. And what an orbit it is. Grade: A-

Rated PG for occasional crude and suggestive humor and language.

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