MOVIE REVIEW : A Bumbling, Fumbling 'Son of the Pink Panther'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Pink Panther series, particularly in its early years, gave us all some classic comic set-pieces, and a great world-class bumbler in Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, so perhaps the errant ineptitude of "Son of the Pink Panther" (countywide) can be forgiven--and quickly forgotten.

Actually, this series ran out of steam long ago, and director Blake Edwards hasn't exactly rung in a new era by casting Italian superstar comic Roberto Benigni in the title role. He seems to have caught the director's lassitude: He's frenetic in a charmless, groggy way. His squiggly mimetic movements don't add up to a character, just a conceit.

The script, co-written by Edwards and Madeline Sunshine and Steve Sunshine, has a few potentially good ideas. Benigni's Jacques Clouseau Jr. isn't just a clone of his father. He has an Italian mother (played by Claudia Cardinale, who starred in the original 1964 "Pink Panther"), and he's deeply, dopily romantic. He spouts Shakespeare and Byron and belts out operatic arias with tone-deaf aplomb. He's a lackadaisical happy spirit, and that seems right for Clouseau's son--the infantilization fits.

But nothing much comes of all this because, the way the film has been directed, everything gets blended into the same unfunny clump of misfired gags and deadbeat timing. The plot, which has something to do with the kidnaping of a Middle Eastern princess (Debrah Farentino) by a scurvy crew headed by Robert Davi, is just an excuse to showcase a lot of mishmashed slapstick (and, no doubt, to send the crew on location to such pleasure spots as Nice and Monte Carlo, though these locations are photographed so drably that they resemble shoddy backdrops).

A host of "Panther" stalwarts turns up, including the ever-twitching Herbert Lom as Commissioner Dreyfus and Burt Kwouk as Cato. They give the film (rated PG for comic violence and mild sensuality) some much-needed auld lang syne, although they're not given anything funny to do. Cato dresses up as a Hasidic rabbi in a harem in one scene and Dreyfus has his biggest comic moment being flummoxed in his hospital bed by a bumbling Clouseau while a Marx Brothers movie airs on the hospital room TV set. That's about as good as it gets. (It takes cojones , by the way, to insert a Marx Brothers clip into these proceedings. Not exactly a fair fight.)

Edwards actually sets the stage at the end for a sequel. Is there anybody out there who would want to see it? More to the point, would Edwards want to make it? His work here is so spiritless that the idea of his doing a sequel is positively harrowing. Either that or it's the best joke in the movie.

'Son of the Pink Panther' Roberto Benigniz: Jacques Herbert Lom: Dreyfus Claudia Cardinale: Maria Debrah Farentino: Princess Yasmin

A United Artists presentation in association with Filmauro S.R.L., released by Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Producer Tony Adams. Executive producer Nigel Wooll. Screenplay Blake Edwards and Madeline Sunshine and Steve Sunshine. Cinematographer Dick Bush. Editor Robert Pergament. Costumes Emma Porteous. Music Henry Mancini. Production design Peter Mullins. Art directors David Minty, John Siddall, Leslie Tomkins. Set decorator Peter Howitt. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG (for comic violence and mild sensuality).

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