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On the prowl Martin is mediocre in latest edition of 'Pink Panther'

Steve Martin might be the most schizophrenic movie star we have. On one hand is Martin the writer, author of the subtle romance "Shopgirl," acclaimed stage productions such as "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," the wonderful comedy memoir "Born Standing Up," and a restrained dramatic actor capable of great things in small films like "The Spanish Prisoner."

On the other hand is Martin the family-franchise-builder who has unleashed overblown zany epics as "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Bringing Down the House" on a surprisingly panting public. It often seems hard to rationalize this Steve with that Steve. Throw in his new banjo album, and things grow even more confusing.

Which brings us to "The Pink Panther 2," a wholly unnecessary sequel to a wholly unnecessary, modestly successful remake. And yes, this is Steve Martin in paycheck mode. That's a bummer, as "Pink 2," like its predecessor, offers only marginal amusement. Clearly, no one can ever pull off Inspector Jacques Clouseau as well as Peter Sellers -- I still rank "A Shot in the Dark" as one of the finest comedies of the '60s -- and to even attempt this seems like utter foolishness. Yet Martin brings his inherent likability, and a keen understanding of the good-natured bumbling that made Sellers' interpretation of the character so iconic. Let us not forget that David Niven and Roberto Benigni failed in the role, under Blake Edwards' direction no less; Martin at least brings healthy doses of respect for Peter Sellers to the project.

Plots were never all that vital to Edwards' "Panther" films, and this detail has not changed in our current millennium. This time, a thief known as "the Tornado" is on the prowl, stealing such world-renowned artifacts as the Magna Carta, the Shroud of Turin, and, of course, France's Pink Panther diamond.

To find the stolen goods and combat the Tornado, a "dream team" of detectives is assembled, featuring Clouseau. Because obviously a bumbling nitwit would make the list -- Oh, and get this: the cast includes French cross-over favorite Jean Reno, the lovely and talented Emily Mortimer, the always dependable Alfred Molina and Andy Garcia, the great John Cleese, Lily Tomlin, Jeremy Irons (seriously), and an actress often dubbed the world's most beautiful, Aishwarya Rai. (This is the first time I've seen her onscreen after hearing of her for several years, but I'm willing to agree with that assessment.)

What a cast! And what a waste. This is the film that brings together Martin, Cleese, Tomlin and Irons? The lure of the pink payday is strong, indeed.

Still, the story allows for some nice moments between Martin and the aw-shucks-likable Mortimer, a fun who-can-out-detect-the-other face-off with Molina, and a chance for Garcia to dress snazzy and look cool. Cleese and Tomlin, sadly, seem afterthoughts in this dripping comic stew.
Rated PG, this new Pink Panther series is clearly meant for family viewing, and on that level, it likely works. Yet for every bit that's a success -- a killer piece of physical comedy involving plummeting wine bottles was my favorite -- there are three times as many that are not. In fact, the whole affair seems rushed, sloppily slapped together and poorly imagined.

For many, the very idea of another Pink Panther series is a sign of the worst of Hollywood. And there's certainly good reason to believe that theory. But the sad reality is, viewers could do a lot worse. I suppose mediocre Steve Martin is better than none at all.



2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Steve Martin, Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer, John Cleese and Andy Garcia

DIRECTOR: Harold Zwart

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

RATING: PG for some suggestive humor, mild language and action

THE LOWDOWN: Inspector Clouseau and a squad of international detectives take on an artifact thief.

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