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The Party (DVD)

The Pink Panther films were career highlights both for writer-director Blake Edwards and for comedian Peter Sellers; the initial installments, 1963's The Pink Panther and 1964's A Shot In The Dark, sealed Edwards' then-budding reputation as a master of slapstick comedy, while Sellers, already a star at the time, benefited from the high-profile vehicles that kept him in the public eye well after his 1980 death. But 1968's The Party, the duo's only non-Panther collaboration, doesn't even live up to the Panther movies' widely varying standards. Rather than scripting the usual gags, Edwards and sometime Panther script collaborators Frank and Tom Waldman wrote a brief story outline, wound Sellers up, and turned him loose. Sporting brown-skin makeup and a relatively restrained comic accent, Sellers plays a bumbling Indian actor who accidentally destroys an irreplaceable set while starring in a remake of Gunga Din. Planning to blacklist him, the film's producer jots his name down on a handy piece of paper, which turns out to be the guest list for his exclusive Hollywood party. The early party scenes are understated but humorous in the style of Jacques Tati (particularly Mon Oncle), as Sellers explores the producer's Art Deco home and fumbles with his oppressively modern environment in a series of near-silent setpieces involving an intercom, a lost shoe traversing the waterways of a decorative in-home canal system, and a series of electronically controlled high-tech gadgets. But as the film progresses and the party heats up, the humor level heads due south, particularly during an interminable search for a bathroom that turns into an interminable attempt to make a toilet cooperate. Edwards and the Waldmans toss in a vague romantic subplot involving a shy French actress (Claudine Longet) who falls for Sellers while fending off her sexually aggressive agent-producer (Gavin MacLeod, looking older and paunchier than he would nearly 10 years later as captain of the Love Boat). But mostly, The Party consists of a scriptless Sellers babbling, squirming, and discomfiting others, all to a jazzy Henry Mancini score. Eventually, a contingent of wild teenagers, fresh from a love-in and leading a slogan-covered baby elephant, show up to end Sellers' misery. Veteran slapstick fans may get a kick out of the free-form antics, and the party's chaotic ending is suitably memorable, but empathetic viewers are likely to be as uncomfortable with Sellers' improv as the partygoers he leads into havoc.

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