If you didn't see the first Steve Martin Pink Panther film, you may wonder when Inspector Clouseau became so smarmy and sentimental. Audiences loved Peter Sellers' Clouseau for being a slapstick loser who struggles to become a winner and often wounds himself in the process. Martin plays him more like a brilliant eccentric who leaves embarrassment and chaos in his wake but comes out smelling like a prom-night carnation, complete with his very own prom queen (Emily Mortimer).
Sellers' Clouseau was at his best as a figure of wounded dignity who solved crimes by accident, if at all. Martin's Clouseau is gifted enough to earn the love of a good woman, the loyalty of a sane, robust sidekick (Jean Reno) and the ultimate admiration of his peers.
Martin's contradictory urges tear the character apart. Sellers had the vaudevillian sense that it was sometimes enough just to be gut-bustingly funny. Even in this kiddie comedy, Martin also wants to be clever. Unfortunately, in The Pink Panther 2, he's neither. You feel the calculation - maybe the flop-sweat - beneath his forced hilarity. (His goofy accent grows tiresome because you can nail down the rules, like pronouncing the h in honor but not the h in hearing-aid.) Comedy loves losers, but you have to be a committed genius to engineer convulsive pratfalls and thigh-slapping choreography around a go-getter, the way Harold Lloyd did in Safety Last. These days, Martin must be saving his genius for books and banjos.
A movie like The Pink Panther 2 registers as an afterthought.
Here, Inspector Clouseau joins an international "dream team" (including Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina and Yuki Matsuzaki) to capture the thief known as The Tornado, who steals irreplaceable artifacts such as the Magna Carta before laying his gloves on the priceless gem known as the Pink Panther. The jokes are the real antiques, especially when Clouseau responds to social-sexual consciousness-raising like a sweet, silly, chauvinist, racist jerk. Even the great Lily Tomlin can't muster a funny reaction to a Polish joke. It's an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink comedy - and the sink has rusty pipes.
The Pink Panther 2 * ( 2 STARS)
(MGM) Starring Steve Martin, Jean Reno. Directed by Harald Zwart. Rated PG for suggestive humor and mild language. Time 92 minutes.