February 6, 2009 / 7:45 AM / 11 years ago

Slapstick reigns, laughs few in "Pink Panther 2"

Steve Martin and Emily Mortimer in a scene from "Pink Panther 2". REUTERS/Handout

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - There’s no denying Steve Martin’s commitment to the role of Jacques Clouseau, the fumbling and deluded Gallic detective Peter Sellers brought to life with ineffable comic timing. But watching his second go at the part, the burning question remains: Pourquoi? Not all of Blake Edwards’ Panther films were gems, to be sure, but why redo Clouseau as a doltish caricature for the new millennium?

The answer is “family-friendly franchise.” Martin’s Clouseau is a broader, sweeter, less complicated — and less funny — clown than the 1960s-‘70s vintage. “The Pink Panther 2” is, mercifully, less labored than the 2006 installment. But that earlier film grossed $82 million domestically, and MGM/Sony’s part deux no doubt will perform well at the box office when it opens on Friday, despite critical pans.

This comedy whodunit generates more laughs than its predecessor, which is to say, two or three. The script, credited to Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber and Martin, uses an appropriately paper-thin plot as an excuse to revel in goofiness, aiming most of the humor at tweens. On hand to portray the cartoonish characters is a willing, if wasted, cast of familiar faces, among them Jean Reno, John Cleese, Lily Tomlin, Jeremy Irons, Geoffrey Palmer and Johnny Hallyday.

The central action involves the international “dream team” of crime experts assembled to catch the Tornado, who’s brazenly swiping priceless artifacts like the Magna Carta, the Shroud of Turin and eventually the Pink Panther diamond. Inspector Clouseau’s having been chosen for the team is the story’s central absurdity. But the intended contrast between his ridiculousness and his colleagues’ professionalism has no bite; for too much of the time, it’s a distinction between tedious and dull. The script and direction leave characters standing around while Martin does his shtick. It’s only in a sequence involving security video screens in an art connoisseur’s mansion that a group chemistry takes hold.

Among Clouseau’s poorly written dream-team colleagues, Yuki Matsuzaki (“Letters From Iwo Jima”) is a standard computer whiz, and Bollywood beauty Aishwarya Rai Bachchan falls short of the mystery she’s meant convey. Alfred Molina’s British detective gets one good bit with a round of forensic one-upmanship with Clouseau. As the debonair Italian detective who takes an interest in Clouseau’s assistant, Nicole (Emily Mortimer), Andy Garcia has more to do and does it with a sly comic touch. The lovely Mortimer, her role expanded from the earlier film, makes the childlike attraction between Clouseau and Nicole matter as much as anything here possibly could.

Mainly “Panther 2” is an exercise in empty farce. Relying too often on clunky reaction shots, director Harald Zwart (“Agent Cody Banks”) rarely allows giddiness to erupt, let alone build. A wine-bottle gag is orchestrated to good effect, but a would-be set piece at the Vatican is a dud. A dumb martial arts face-off between Clouseau and two boys serves mainly to showcase the art nouveau interiors of Clouseau’s flat, the strongest European element in this Paris- and Boston-shot feature.

The production is alternately polished and sloppy; in a glaring continuity gaffe, Mortimer’s eyeglasses change shape in the middle of a party scene. But there’s far worse that this movie tries to get away with in the name of comedy.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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