Not content with having trashed the memory of Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards once with the awful 2006 “remake” of “The Pink Panther,” Steve Martin takes up the task again, with results that are equally bad. That “The Pink Panther 2” is silly is a given; that it’s pretty terrible is the result of the missteps—the creative ones, not those of the slapstick variety—made by writer-star Martin and his inept director Harald Zwart.
The miscalculations begin with the mere presence of Martin, who again proves an unsatisfactory substitute for Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. He’s an able comedian, of course (as was Alan Arkin, who tried to give the character a different spin in 1968’s picture named after the cop—and also failed). But he’s wrong for the part. Where Sellers effortlessly conveyed a childish innocence to mitigate Clouseau’s sublimely wrongheaded arrogance and breathtaking clumsiness, and projected the wounded dignity of a big kid whenever his klutziness did him in. Martin doesn’t: he’s always been at his worst when trying to play stupid (even in “The Jerk”), because he naturally radiates intelligence, and the calculation behind the act is all too obvious. The result is that in his hands Clouseau isn’t sweetly dumb—he’s an irritating idiot. You find yourself quickly growing tired of his antics and even angry at them. That’s not the point of the exercise, or at least it shouldn’t be. And the fact that all of his stunts are performed by surrogates is painfully obvious.
But Martin’s misguided performance is just the tip of the iceberg. The material that he and his co-writers have come up with is anemic, and it’s staged by Zwart without a hint of Edward’s flair and timing. The plot—which has to do with Clouseau being called upon to head a multi-national task force assigned to track down a master thief (The Tornado this time around, rather than The Phantom) who specializes in items of historical importance (The Shroud of Turin, the Magna Carta)—is just a reed (a very thin, fragile one) on which to hang a string of episodes involving physical slapstick and verbal buffoonery. The problem is that neither ever reaches the sort on inspired lunacy that Sellers and Edwards so often achieved. An initial sketch involving falling wine bottles—a variant of the old custard-pie stuff—is ruined by overemphasis on special effects; a kung-fu sequence between Clouseau and a couple of kids lacks rhythm and style; a flamenco dance bit falls flat; and an elaborate scene where Clouseau dons papal robes and falls off a Vatican balcony commits the mortal sin of being not only tasteless but unfunny. Beside all this, does it matter much that there are precisely two verbal moments that work and that Martin’s accent is just a mushy mumble? Or that the identity of the thief is telegraphed far too early?
Martin and Zwart get surprisingly little help from their potentially capable supporting cast. Andy Garcia, as the Italian member of the team, and John Cleese, replacing Kevin Kline as Clouseau’s put-upon boss Dreyfus, each have a couple of good moments, and Lily Tomlin could have been a scene-stealer as the police department’s sensitivity specialist, had not the face-offs between her and Martin degenerated into puerility. But once again Jean Reno proves a pale substitute for Sellers’ aide Graham Stark; even worse, Alfred Molina tanks as the team’s English member (he’s stuck with a truly embarrassing bit at the close), as does Jeremy Irons as a haughty suspect. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan provides some welcome beauty as the sole female team member (though she’s not much of an actress), but all the material involving Emily Mortimer, as the mousy secretary making moon-eyes at Clouseau while he’s unable to express his feelings for her, is a further drag on an already dead horse.
The European locations are attractive, the overall production fine and the cinematography (by Denis Crossan) decent, but Christophe Beck’s score is annoyingly brash except when Henry Mancini’s original theme pops up. Sadly, that old music, along with the cartoon titles modeled after those in the earlier pictures, are the best things about “The Pink Panther 2.” The rest—like its predecessor—is bad enough to make Sellers and Edwards roll over in their graves.