Someday, we'll stroll through the Steve Martin wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, admiring his collection, and we'll appreciate what he had to do to pay for his Picassos, Seurats and Edward Hoppers. Until then, we endure the Cheaper by the Dozens and Pink Panthers with a grimace, remembering the comic he once was.
The Pink Panther 2, his latest, is somewhat less of a desecration of the memory of Peter Sellers than Martin's first outing as the bumbling French detective. Martin still hasn't bothered to learn a faux French accent. The editing doesn't hide that even the simplest stunts are now done by fellows in snow-white wigs. But this family-friendly farce plays lighter than the first Martin Panther, even if Martin himself still doesn't get what made the character funny.
The Magna Carta, the Shroud of Turin and a famous Japanese sword have been stolen by The Tornado. An international "dream team" — English (Alfred Molina), Italian (Andy Garcia, funny), Japanese (Yuki Matsuzaki) and Indian (Aishwarya Rai) — has been assembled to crack the case. They want the world's "greatest detective" on board. Can his boss (John Cleese, giving his all) spare Clouseau from parking duty? Of course he can, even though he knows the only smart thing about the man is his Smart Car.
As soon as Clouseau and Ponton (Jean Reno) are on the case, the Pink Panther diamond is stolen — again.
Our team travels to Rome to interview a suspect (an Oscar winner in a cameo) and the pope's ring is swiped right off his finger. Not to worry. Clouseau's powers of deduction — if not his tact or common sense — will triumph.
"Forgeeve me, Meester Pope," Martin/Clouseau purrs in an accent that comes and goes, as if he forgets how Pepe LePew sounded. To his new Japanese dream teammate, he blurts, "I suppose you weel be wanting soooshi, my leetle yellow friend."
Lily Tomlin, taking this paid vacation, is a human resources officer trying to cure Clouseau of his political incorrectness. Emily Mortimer is back as the assistant for whom Clouseau pines.
A few bits of physical comedy pay off. Martin's juggling skills come in handy for a special effects-assisted accident with a wine rack. He dances a flamenco (badly) and has a karate brawl with Ponton's young sons.
The film, by Dutch director Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks) treats Clouseau, at times, as a cartoon character, hurling him across the French skyline. Neither actor nor director picks up on what made the character work — he was an egomaniac who suspected his incompetence but was determined to keep up appearances. Martin lacks Sellers' dash, his pained "I'll be found out" double-takes, his mastery of the accent. Martin isn't putting in the work.