Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Please, Get A Clue

I’m always happy to see Steve Martin turn up in any form in any medium. From injecting the phrase “Excuuuuse me!” into the culture as a stand-up comedian 30 years ago, to writing and starring in The Jerk (“I was born a poor black child”), hosting the Oscars twice (“I’m happy to be back because fear and nausea make me lose weight”), writing his delicate, austere Shopgirl novella and contributing to The New Yorker (be still my heart), the actor/ dancer/playwright/art-collecting banjo-picker probably qualifies as some sort of American genius. (If we forgive him for Cheaper by the Dozen II. Actually, people say it’s not that bad. The first Cheaper by the Dozen apparently is Martin’s highest-grossing film ever, sad to say.)

But back to me. Last week at the movies, after what appeared to be the third hour of ads and trailers, a promo came on starring the white-haired comedian as bumbling Inspector Jacques Clouseau, with bad French accent, freaky pencil-thin black moustache and all. There was a wave of palpable relief in the theater, and the audience immediately laughed.

This Pink Panther, starring Martin in the Peter Sellers role, Beyonce as a possible jewel thief (yes, they’re still after the prized diamond) and Kevin Kline as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, Clouseau’s nemesis, opens Feb. 10 (after originally being slated for release last summer). Some Sellers purists think the idea of a remake is bad enough to begin with, but I think if anyone could pull it off, it’s Martin. In any case, combining a movie promo with a PSA on the no-lose subject of turning off the damn cell phones is smart and innovative. Even the biggest jerk, who takes calls and talks loudly in theaters, would agree with the message and appreciate the entertaining wrapping. The setup is clever—it’s one of those in-cinema spots that takes place in a, er, cinema: We watch him watch a movie. The seated inspector, flanked by a woman and a little girl holding her popcorn, is shown intensely following a Western while slurping down an enormous soda.

“Somewhere in this theater … a crime is being committed,” the black title cards say (and with a line like that, the jokes just write themselves). A cell phone rings, blaring the famous Henry Mancini “Pink Panther” theme song. “How wwrude!” the bumbler says, blaming the little girl. “Turn off your cell phone, I’m trying to watch a fli-im!”

“I don’t have a cell phone,” she responds, as he steals a piece of her popcorn. It rings again. “Honestly!” he complains (and even if the mangling of the language is lame, it’s a pretty good time for a bad French accent).

He realizes it’s his own phone. “I will put it on vibrate,” he says solemnly, as if he’s explaining particle theory.

Once the buzz starts, the mustachioed one is shown hunkering down in his seat, enjoying the vibrations, if you will, and glancing at the woman. “Don’t be a Clouseau. … Get a clue!” says another title card. And I thought the “get a clue” part referred, appropriately, not only to the movie tagline, but also to the glance at the woman.

Cut to a big “Shhhh!” for good measure, from the tall skinny cartoon cat himself (who, by the way, started out as an animated figure during the opening and closing credits of the original Peter Sellers-Blake Edwards films).

We get the message—over and out. There’s a final title card telling us that the spot was also brought to us by our “friends at Cingular.” The turn-off-the-cell-phone trailer is a regular emerging genre; Cingular had a great one last year featuring two old Asian guys showing off some insane martial arts moves in complete silence, when they are interrupted by the ring ring ring.

I thought this new one was expertly co-branded, hilarious and brilliant, even—until Steve Martin lowered his pants.

Yes, don’t you just love a masturbation gag in front of a young girl? Really, what were they thinking? How does this pass as funny? Talk about adding a climax—the “button,” if you will, is a quick cut of Martin’s legs, straight up in the air and naked (he is wearing striped socks and shoes, an old-school porn fave) as he writhes on the floor in jackhammer fashion.

Eeek. That “somewhere in the theater, a crime is being committed” line was more telling then we knew. The girl is shown actually looking at him with disgust. The joke is not only distasteful, it borders on pedophilia.

Interestingly, when talking with people after the film, I found that many who thought the promo was funny didn’t even catch the final, legs-akimbo cut. This production is from the same group as the film itself—Martin worked on the screenplay (and this spot), and it was directed by Shawn Levy (who also did Cheaper by the Dozen.) The movie has been rated PG, by the way, for “Occasional Crude and Suggestive Humor and Language.”

From the other coming attractions, I know there’s a big joke about pronouncing “hamburger” and lots of physical “humor.”

But with a promo like this, I can just imagine the flim itself.

It’s worse than wwrude. Get a clue.