"Pink Panther 2"

The real mystery of this sequel is how Steve Martin could make such a painfully unfunny movie.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 6, 2009 11:32AM (EST)

The phrase "Dream Team" gets bandied about more in "Pink Panther 2" than it did during the 1992 Olympics and the O.J. Simpson trial put together. And indeed, the follow-up to the inexplicably successful 2006 remake of the legendary comedy franchise is blessed with an all-star cast of award-winning actors, comic legends and international household names. And what is our reward for the collective effort of this prestigious assembly? One of the most dreadfully unnecessary movies in recent memory. And that's a recent memory that includes "Bride Wars" and "My Bloody Valentine."

A panacea for people who find the Mr. Bean movies too challenging, "Pink Panther 2" once again finds the overconfident, bungling Parisian inspector Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin) on the trail of the priceless titular diamond. He's also on the hunt for the mastermind behind the theft of the rosy-hued gem and several other historic treasures, including the shroud of Turin, the Magna Carta and the pope's ring.

It's a mystery too great for even zee world's greatest detective, hence the Dream Team, an all-star squad of brilliant crime solvers and ethnic stereotypes. There's the stiff Brit (Alfred Molina), the libidinous Italian (Andy Garcia), the geeky Japanese guy (Yuki Matsuzaki) and the brainy, smoking-hot Indian chick (Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). In the extended Dream Team, there's Clouseau's nemesis-cum-supervisor, Dreyfus (John Cleese); his hangdog partner, Ponton (Jean Reno); and his nerdy-yet-soignée assistant, Nicole (Emily Mortimer). Jeremy Irons briefly pops in to rehash his "Lion King" role as a sleekly menacing criminal, and even CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, playing herself, makes an appearance. Christiane Amanpour, for pity's sake.

And just when you think you've reached the cachet tipping point, there's Lily Tomlin, in ruffled shirts and a tightly pulled countenance, as a Palais de Justice expert vainly training the un-p.c. Clouseau not to make sexist remarks or refer to his Asian colleague as "my little yellow friend."

It's hard to say which is more depressing: watching Martin's contemporary play a purse-lipped scold while he gets to be the object of the beautiful Bachchan and Mortimer's affections, or seeing the stars of the charming, underrated "All of Me" 25 years later, looking like they're just waiting for the paycheck to clear.

The real mystery of "Pink Panther 2" isn't the identity of the elusive thief known only as "The Tornado" -- you should be able to figure that out within the first half-hour. It's how so many legendary performers managed to create a movie so excruciatingly unamusing.

J'accuse Steve Martin, who not only stars but also co-wrote the script (with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber). Though Martin retains Clouseau's iconic scorched-earth comic persona and even re-creates some of the character's most memorable disasters, he strips him of the oddball genius and worldly savoir-faire of the original star, Peter Sellers. Martin's chief skill seems to be an ability to withstand a torrent of physical abuse. It's a feat that seems unsuited to the 63-year-old actor, who riddles the movie with lavish pratfalls, punishing mishaps and a few well-timed infernos, all of which look like the tired product of stuntmen and CGI. John Cleese, bless his heart, can still squeeze a drop of mirth from convincingly banging his head against a wall, but what's the point of a Clouseau who gets punted across Paris and dropped from St. Peter's and looks like he was basking in his trailer all day? Director Harald Zwart, perhaps anticipating his audience's incredulity, loads the movie with exasperated, eye-rolling reaction shots from his supporting cast every time Clouseau does anything incroyable but leaves them with little else to do beyond bluster. One admires his restraint in not inserting a laugh track.

In a nod to Blake Edwards' original films, the characters of the new "Pink Panther" occupy a Paree straight out of Pepé Le Pew's domain: a city of broad accents, eetsy-beetsy cars and Henry Mancini melodies. There's still great charm to be found in that idealized city of light -- one only has to look to movies like "Amélie" or "Ratatouille" to find it. And the broad physical comedy of people getting hit in the face, preferably with pastries, will always be entertaining. But somewhere in even the grandest, most supersaturated, baguette-strewn fantasy, there still needs to be genuine, uncalculated absurdity. Martin still has it in him -- his loopy recent turns in "Baby Mama" and on "30 Rock" prove that his fancy-pants New Yorker writer persona has not completely consumed the wild and crazy guy within. He's still funny, and he's more than capable of assembling a Dream Team. Now if only he could make a movie that didn't put the audience to sleep.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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