* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Blake Edwards

Written by Edwards, Madeline Sunshine, and Steve Sunshine

With Roberto Benigni, Claudia Cardinale, Herbert Lom, Debrah Farentino, Robert Davi, Shabana Azmi, and Burt Kwouk.

Son of the Pink Panther is the eighth or ninth Pink Panther movie, depending on how you keep count–the press materials choose to ignore Bud Yorkin’s 1968 Inspector Clouseau with Alan Arkin, a flop that pleased no one. It also represents the third time writer-director Blake Edwards has resumed the series after announcing it was definitively over. The first dormant period was 1965-’74, after the successive and successful releases of The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark in 1964. The second, 1979-’81, followed The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)–which were even more successful at the box office than the first two.

Peter Sellers, the star of the series, died in 1980. But with a perversity and cynicism matched only by commercial greed, Edwards managed to grind out two more Clouseau films in the 80s, Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), which I’ve never managed to bring myself to see. The first, which “starred” Sellers, relied on discarded sequences, retakes, and clips from the earlier movies, supplemented by shots of stand-ins and periodic, strategic disappearances of Clouseau from the plot. The second film was actually predicated on the character’s sustained absence.

To the best of my knowledge, neither of these postmortem productions performed nearly as well commercially as the preceding five features. Yet as Edwards himself has indicated, hopes of striking paydirt again after a string of relative flops persuaded him to reanimate the series.

His new star is Roberto Benigni, a rather lovable Italian comic best known in the U.S. for his roles in two Jim Jarmusch features, Down by Law and Night on Earth. In Italy he’s much better known for his taboo-breaking TV work, his leading role in the most recent Fellini feature (The Voice of the Moon), and his own features as writer, director, and star (the last of these, Johnny Stecchino–reportedly the highest-grossing film in the history of Italian cinema–had a brief run here in a truncated version).

Benigni’s comic persona (volatile, excitable, polymorphous-perverse, and generally infantile) is quite different from that of Sellers (passive, poker-faced, aphysical), which leads one to reflect on what exactly a Pink Panther comedy is. In Son of the Pink Panther Benigni plays Jacques Gambrelli, a gendarme living with his Italian mother (Claudia Cardinale) in the south of France–a holy fool with a romantic soul and a passion for quoting poetry who proves to be the illegitimate son of Clouseau (though he becomes aware of this only belatedly) and helps to defeat a band of kidnappers who are roughly equivalent to the villains of the earlier pictures. Unfortunately, the mechanics needed to keep the standard kidnapping plot turning take up too much of the movie; most of the gags seem to take place around the edges of this complicated nothingness.

Cardinale played a leading part in The Pink Panther, but confusingly enough, the character she plays here is called Maria Gambrelli, the name of the character played by Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark. Lugosh–the imaginary Middle Eastern country in The Return of the Pink Panther, Trail of the Pink Panther, and Curse of the Pink Panther–is trotted out again, and Edwards also brings back the three most familiar characters from the previous pictures: Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), black-belt “houseboy” Cato (Burt Kwouk), and disguise master Dr. Balls (Graham Stark). But these characters have become decidedly dustier and more subdued. This time Dreyfus, for instance, doesn’t descend into madness or hatch murder plots as a result of Clouseau Junior’s incompetence; he may still have a twitch, but he gets along so well with Junior’s mother that he winds up marrying her.

“The Pink Panther” originally referred to a flaw in the center of a precious diamond that was said to resemble a pink panther, not to Clouseau, and the animated panther created by David DePatie and Friz Freleng for the credits sequence of The Pink Panther eventually launched a cartoon series of its own. But the association of this animal with the titles of the Clouseau films after A Shot in the Dark–vaguely justified by the appearance of the cartoon character in the credits sequences and occasionally elsewhere in the pictures–has clearly become merely obligatory.

A more organic constant in the comedies is the mispronunciation of English words by the European hero. In Down by Law Benigni’s vague grasp of English–a real-life limitation that I’m told he’s only partially overcome since–was one of the central defining points of his character. The rough similarity between this comic trait and Seller’s manufactured French accent appears to be the main reason Edwards cast him as Clouseau’s son, though some limited accommodation to Benigni’s other traits is made by adding a romantic temperament and a taste for poetry to the traits of his fictional father (which mainly consist of befuddlement and being accident-prone).

All movie slapstick takes place in a highly stylized world, but the nature of the linguistic stylization of the France of Clouseau and Clouseau Junior deserves some special consideration. The Pink Panther series was launched in the mid-60s, when the international power and influence of French cinema was at its height. A probable backlash against this phenomenon, Edwards’s series is predicated on a pointed reversal of the scorn suffered by every American in Paris who speaks French imperfectly. In Pink Panther France–where the only language spoken is English and even A Day at the Races can be shown on TV without subtitles (as it is in Son of the Pink Panther, intercut with a slapstick sequence that smacks less of hommage than of unearned self-congratulation)–we’re invited to laugh with equal scorn at the way the pronunciations of Clouseau and his son deconstruct the English language. (Oddly enough, these Frenchmen are usually the only ones with heavy accents, give or take a few TV newscasters; Dreyfus, for instance, has no French accent at all.) One of the drawbacks to this as a source of comedy is the obligation of some character to repeat the mauled word, correctly or not, for the gag to register. Moreover, in the case of Clouseau Junior’s poetry recitations, we clearly aren’t meant to query why his repertoire is exclusively English–as opposed to French or Italian. In short, this is a fantasy notion for Americans of what Europe should be like, which leads me to wonder what kind of comic sense these movies make in overseas dubbed versions.

As a onetime fan of early and middle-period Clouseau, I regret the degree to which the public’s identification of Sellers with this part eventually narrowed and limited his later roles–in contrast to his earlier expert mimicry of daft and demonic American and German types in Kubrick’s Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. Even though there were good reasons to admire his last performance, in Being There–as a passive, illiterate TV addict who unwittingly becomes a national hero and even, in the final shot, a Christ figure–one could still lament the fact that playing Clouseau, an ineffectual blob who figured like a bemused sun at the center of a chaotic solar system, led to this culminating part.

Benigni is something else again, and his cheerful physicality and soul–combined with Edwards’s continuing feel for slapstick–give the tired routines of Son of the Pink Panther whatever life they have. (Less can be said for the opening animation-plus-live-action credits sequence, which left the afternoon audience I saw this with as cold and quiet as a morgue.) I can foresee a future for Benigni in American comedy, but probably not as Clouseau Junior. Like the Bowery Boys series–which flourished even more plentifully, on much lower budgets, through the 40s and 50s, after earlier incarnations as the Dead End Kids and the East Side Kids–the Clouseau pictures have spun themselves out as long as they have on the strength of a few personalities and comic formulas, both of which seem incidental to Benigni’s talents. The dead horse Edwards has been beating for over a decade finally seems to be turning into a rather sticky glue.