“The Pink Panther 2”
At the Quality 16 and Showcase

2 out of 5 stars

In his newest adventure, Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin) is forced to masquerade as a Spanish dancer flailing in spandex at an inauthentic Roman restaurant. The joke is there: While trying to covertly swap a secret microphone from one table to another, he ends up making an ass out of himself and lighting the place on fire. No surprises there.

But something ruins the joke. Sure, the premise of the gag is kind of funny, and it’s obviously not meant to be plausible or make any sense. But the scene plays out squeaky-clean, well-lit and overly childish, and its humor is ruined by the poor staging: It turns out he’s in Epcot, not Rome! This staging problem is what’s ultimately wrong with “The Pink Panther 2,” the latest Martin-led pillaging of the Peter Sellers legacy.

“Pink Panther 2,” the sequel to the 2006 Pink Panther re-start that also featured Martin, plays like a series of decent jokes ruined by amateur directing. Martin is a hysterical guy — aside from Sellers, only he can get away with tossing wine-bottles, racist jokes and bad French accents. It’s just that Martin is stuck in another chintzy mystery-comedy, and it’s holding him back.

The plot goes like this: A mysterious thief known as the Tornado has stolen rare artifacts and the “Pink Panther diamond.” In an effort to catch the crook, a dream team of investigators is assembled and, of course, the clodhopping Clouseau’s in on it. Why? Because it’s funny, right? Clouseau proceeds to annoy Andy Garcia (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) and John Cleese (“Shrek the Third”). Hilarious.

But that’s it. At 92 minutes and filled with about a dozen decent jokes, “Pink Panther 2” is could-have-been-great cinema. Sure, Lily Tomlin (“A Prairie Home Companion”) spends most of her time in the film serving up racy jokes for Martin. And yes, Martin dressing up like the Pope is a bonus. But this movie still needed to restrain itself in order to keep its PG-13 rating, and as a result, there’s little of the freedom or spirit of the originals in “Panther 2.”

Blake Edwards (co-creator of the “Panther” movies) and Peter Sellers worked on almost all of the originals, and they created a perfect blend of locales, lunacy and laugh-out-loud gags. The new “Panther” movies — especially this one — only achieve one of those three traits. The locations are synthetic and the humor sporadic. Martin just slips by as his own version of Clouseau. It tries to be like the classic, but can’t when it’s dumbed way down.

Still, Steve Martin’s legacy is pretty much secure, like it or not. The typical complaint about the once wild-and-crazy guy is that he’s become a sell-out. “Bringing Down the House,” “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” and the “Cheaper by the Dozen” films are sufficient evidence to argue that point. But that doesn’t mean Martin was any less funny in those flicks. Dirty old man jokes are always funny, even in a rehash for tots.

Granted, Martin’s a witty guy, and well-played gags are always welcome. Look for the “no ogling” gag with Tomlin in this one. But beware when Clouseau falls through three flights of chimneys.

Or better yet, just watch the originals instead. Blake Edwards got it right a long time ago. Five times.

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