(On TV, March 2017) The dangers with slapstick comedies are numerous. Badly handled, they become juvenile, offensive, repetitive and annoying. Well-done, preferably combined with other kinds of humour, slapstick can bring a lot of energy in a comedy. The Steve Martin remake of The Pink Panther doesn’t avoid the worst pitfalls of its subgenre, but it generally succeeds more than it fails, and crucially gets significantly better toward the end. The point of the movie is the character of Inspecteur Clouseau, often bumbling, usually disaster-prone but (this is important) someone who can eventually piece together the mystery in the end. So it is that the first half of The Pink Panther accumulates all of the problems of slapstick. It’s brought down to a kids’ movie worst-common-denominator level, has little subtlety or wit, keeps doubling-down on gags that aren’t funny in the first place and often skirt discomfort at the physical violence of some jokes. Clouseau’s antics are more likely to make audience cringe than laugh. But here and there, we can see signs that the film knows what it’s doing. A few recurring gags and over-the-top madness combine to have a cyclist crash into a newsstand that then explodes, earning the first laugh of the film and reassuring us that the filmmakers are truly going for excess. As the movie goes on, we get to understand its sense of humour better and succumb (at least occasionally) to it. The ending, during which Clouseau pieces everything together in a dazzling sequence of deductions, does quite a bit to endear us to the movie, even as flawed as it is—it’s one thing to have a completely incompetent hero, but it’s much better to see them pull it together in the end. Martin is decent as Clouseau—my memories of Peter Sellers as the original Clouseau are so far away that I don’t have a lot of material for comparison, but he sells both the verbal and the physical comedy. Meanwhile, Jean Reno has a rare (and imposing) clean-shaven role as a sidekick, Kevin Kline has the sadistic-boss role wrapped up, Emily Mortimer is unusually cute as the romantic interest (she gets two or three of the film’s best scenes) and Beyoncé Knowles shows up in a bid to be taken seriously as a comic actress, with middling results. Jason Statham and Clive Owen also very briefly show up in too-small roles. The Pink Panther isn’t particularly good, but it is occasionally effective, and its dedication to slapstick makes for an unusual entry in today’s comedy styling.
(On cable TV, April 2012) There’s something almost archetypical in the holy fool that Paul Rudd plays so loosely in Our Idiot Brother: a childish man with no perceptive filters and an almost-infinite good faith in his fellow humans, the titular brother becomes a catalyst for dramatic change when he’s forced to spend time with his three sisters and their families. The specific of the plot becomes secondary to the character work and the conflagration when too much unfiltered truth exposes everyone’s illusions. The trailer makes the film look like a laugh-a-minute, but the actual film is more measured and demands to be taken more slowly. In the roles of the three sisters, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer do fine work, but it’s really Rudd who holds the film on his shoulders. With all the self-deluded characters, painful confrontations and elaborate rationalizations, Our Idiot Brother becomes a profoundly humanistic film. As a result, and with the help of a conclusion in which everything predictably goes well, it’s a charming, likable and self-assured film. It may be a bit too gentle and slow-paced to please those looking for laugh-a-minute hilarity, but when a film has so much charisma, it doesn’t really matter.