Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, Steve Martin
Starring: Steve Martin, Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer, Andy Garcia, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, John Cleese
Running Time: 92 mins
The year may still be in its infancy, but 2009 will struggle to produce another comedy quite as bad as The Pink Panther 2. The earlier entries in this series starred the matchless Peter Sellers (and once Alan Arkin) as clumsy French law officer Jacques Clouseau. The movies, of wildly varying quality, featured virtuoso performances from Sellers. The reinvented franchise is now in its second go-around with a comic legend front-and-centre who possesses nothing of Sellers's genius in the role.
The action kicks off with another theft of the negligently-guarded pink diamond in France, this time by a crook calling themselves The Tornado. When several other artifacts are swiped across the globe, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Cleese) hires an international 'Dream Team' to crack the case. Joining the cadre of stereotypes - a smooth-talking Italian (Garcia), an Asian tech whizz (Yuki Matsuzaki), a stiff-upper-lipped Brit (Alfred Molina) and an exotic author (Rai Bachchan) - is the bumbling Clouseau. There's still no place for Kato, Clouseau's karate-loving Chinese manservant, but you wonder why when the movie has no problem peddling lazy racial generalisations and even has Clouseau at one point referring to his Japanese colleague as "my little yellow friend".
The Pink Panther 2's cartoon credit sequence, Henry Mancini's iconic score with Clouseau being foiled at every turn by his sly adversary, offers a sliver of wit and satisfaction. That hope is fleeting as the movie quickly plummets into a laugh-free abyss. The story that connects the rote set pieces is so foretold, that not even the appearance of Jeremy "red herring" Irons can throw you off the scent of the final twist. One sight gag, though, a newspaper headline poking fun at Clouseau's ineptitude, raised a laugh: "French Idiot - Entire Nation Loses Panache".
Director Harald Zwart, who'll next helm a Karate Kid remake, doesn't seem to understand that well-choreographed visual comedy requires as much care as verbally dispatched set-up/punchline jokes. Go back, for instance, and look at the very first Pink Panther, where Clouseau is a supporting character. He starts pompously lecturing about locating a suspect, spinning a globe for dramatic effect. Seconds later he places his hand on the still-rotating object and is sent flying to the floor. The gag is reprised in Pink Panther 2 with Clouseau dropping onto a globe feet-first then pinballing across the room atop it. The latter never builds any rhythm to a pay-off and as a result feels completely artificial. Slapstick may be farce, but it doesn't have to be this stupid.
Where Sellers's Clouseau was unshakable, able to tumble down a flight of stairs then get up and continue his deductive musings as if nothing happened, Martin looks vaguely embarrassed to be taking part - like his guilt is only being sated by the number of zeroes on his pay cheque. There'll be mileage left in the new Pink Panthers, re-conceived as knockabout kid-friendly comedies, but they're destined to collapse under the weight of superior predecessors and lazy physical comedy. Most great cinema characters have the ability to outlive their actors - it would seem that on recent evidence, there's room for only one Inspector Clouseau.
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