Steve Martin, 'Where Are You?'

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Steve Martin in MGM/Columbia Pictures' The Pink Panther - 2006
MGM/Columbia Pictures

CBS News Sunday Morning contributor David Edelstein laments the demise Steve Martin's comedic side.



I love Steve Martin, so I was happy and sad for him when "The Pink Panther" remake was the number one movie at the box office last week: happy that he'll make some big bucks and sad that so many people saw such a god-awful piece of work.

Forget about Martin not being in the same league as Peter Sellers, the original Inspector Clouseau. He's not even in the same league as the original Steve Martin.

I wouldn't belabor the point if Martin weren't an American original. Coming of age in the counterculture, he looked like the ultimate white-guy square until those groovy, freaky spasms began. The late Pauline Kael wrote that Martin was "like a man who's being electrocuted and getting a dirty thrill out of it."

The simpleton he played in "The Jerk" bordered on surreal, and he was an inspired gonzo mad scientist in "The Man With Two Brains." If Hollywood had more respect for comedy, he'd have won every award for his performance in "All of Me" as a lawyer whose body is invaded by the soul of Lily Tomlin.

Martin depicts each character alternately, even simultaneously; it's a spastic tug of war with left side against right side and no side (including the audience's) unsplit.

And his turn as a lovelorn fire chief in the Cyrano update "Roxanne" proved he could be funny and romantic and as lyrical as a dancer.

Well, great clowns sometimes get tired of being laughed at. They want to make people cry. They want to get awards -- and more money. Martin went the respectable route with "Parenthood" and "Father of the Brides" one and two and "Cheaper By the Dozens" one and two. Along the way he wrote plays and acted in oddball dramas like "Novocaine" and David Mamet's "The Spanish Prisoner." He didn't totally sell out. But he seemed to lose his zest for crazy comedy.

He was amazing as a super-twit opposite cartoon characters in the underrated "Looney Tunes: Back in Action," but the picture bombed, while "Cheaper By the Dozen," with the self-neutered Martin, made a mint.

Last year, he wrote and starred in the moist drama "Shopgirl." He played an emotional coward who can't commit to fragile Claire Danes. He didn't commit in his performance, either. Steve Martin's art is about brilliantly busting out -- not making sad faces in "Shopgirl," not doing stupid accents and fart jokes in "The Pink Panther."

How can we reward him for turning his back on his genius?