Review: 'The Pink Panther 2'

( PG ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Steve Martin's Inspector Clouseau and his comically gifted cohorts labor to raise laughs.

Peter Iovino/Columbia/Sony Pictures/AP
Steve Martin, left, and Jean Reno shown in a scene from The Pink Panther 2.

When Steve Martin assumed the role of Inspector Clouseau in 2006, I was one of the few critics who actually praised him. Peter Sellers may have been brilliant in the first two "Panther" films but does anybody remember how laggard the later installments were? Martin, a great physical comic with a genius for screwy foreign accents, was perfect casting.

Now we have "The Pink Panther 2," and the bloom is decidedly off the pinkish rose. Martin has a few inspired moments but in order to get to them you have to wade through a mosh pit of unfunny gags.

As the bumbling French police detective, Martin reclaims his nutso accent from the first film, to diminishing effect. In the 2006 "The Pink Panther," I laughed uncontrollably when Clouseau, taking speech lessons from an English language coach, repeatedly mangled the word "hamburger." Martin's deadpan lunacy in this scene was peerless.

In "The Pink Panther 2," director Harald Zwart and his co-writers (including Martin) can't come up with an equivalent to this scene – not even close. They are reduced to using "hamburger" all over again, in a much less funny context. Now it's the password for a SWAT team.

The movie's ostensible plot has something to do with an international team of experts who attempt to recover recently heisted priceless treasures from around the world, including the Pink Panther diamond. Much to his slow-burn dismay, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (John Cleese) is forced to assign Clouseau, whom he has marginalized as a traffic cop, to the team.

Cleese has a funny bit early on when, upon getting the news about the Clouseau assignment, he excuses himself from the discussion, goes into the adjoining bathroom, and proceeds to pound his head – hard – against the fixtures. It's the only moment in the movie when Cleese is allowed to do anything except stew and simper.

And then there's Lily Tomlin, who has a brief, unfunny cameo as an etiquette instructor at the Palais de Justice. Watching her play opposite Martin in this scene is an object lesson in how far Hollywood comedy has fallen. In 1984 Martin and Tomlin appeared together in the hilarious whirligig "All of Me." It was their first pairing together and, inexplicably, their last – until now. What must have been going through their minds in "The Pink Panther 2" as they played out their slapdash routines? Probably the same thing that was going through mine.

Even the numerous physical comedy set-ups, obviously designed for Martin, literally fall flat. The karate bouts between Clouseau and the young sons of his partner (Jean Reno, repeating his role from the first film) are execrably staged. So is a sequence where Clouseau, dressed like a toreador, impersonates a flamenco dancer. It's possible that Martin's footwork in this last scene was dexterous but we'll never know. Zwart's cameras are doing their own dumb dance.

The supporting cast of "experts" comes across as nondescript, which is quite a feat considering that they include such normally volatile performers as Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina and Bollywood bombshell Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. The high-low point comes at the end when Molina, on the losing side of a bet, shows up in a pink tutu. Not a pleasant sight.

There is also some supposedly risqué humor involving the pope, which is too doddering to be offensive, and an overabundance of cheesy, digitized shots of Paris. Zwart was aiming for a retro, storybook look but the results are more like a cheesy travelogue replete with bleary process shots. (Much of the film was actually filmed in and around Boston.)

One more qualm: Real-life news reporters in this film show up playing themselves, most notably Christiane Amanpour of CNN. I wish these luminaries would resist the temptation. I realize that news and showbiz have become almost indistinguishable, but I'd like to think that, if Edward R. Murrow were alive today, he wouldn't be agitating his agent for a chance to play himself in "The Dark Knight." Grade: C (Rated PG for some suggestive humor, brief mild language, and action.)

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