When Steve Martin arrived on the comedy scene more than 30 years ago, he found his niche by bucking trends and defying convention. He's gotten pretty middle-of-the-road since then, particularly in the mediocre (or worse) films he's made in the last couple decades, but it turns out he can still surprise us: Despite being a sequel that is completely unnecessary, The Pink Panther 2 is actually better than its predecessor.
It's nothing compared to the Peter Sellers originals, of course -- it's still mediocre, if harmlessly so -- but we'll take our small victories where we can find them. The misguided 2006 reboot, badly directed by Shawn Levy, was a sweaty, desperate mess; this one, in contrast, directed more confidently by Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks), is easygoing and smooth. It has several funny sequences and a general tone of good-natured frivolity. I rarely felt like the movie was trying to force me to laugh, which I felt constantly during the last one.
Martin returns as the idiotic Inspector Clouseau, now on parking-enforcement duty in Paris because Chief Inspector Dreyfus (John Cleese) got tired of his wacky shenanigans in the detective squad. Clouseau is called back into action, however, to be France's representative in an international dream team of detectives assigned to investigate a string of high-profile thefts. Someone calling himself The Tornado has been making off with things like the Magna Carta, the Shroud of Turin, and, yes, the Pink Panther diamond, and for some reason Clouseau is considered France's greatest detective. The rest of the team includes Vicenzo (Andy Garcia) from Italy, Britain's Pepperidge (Alfred Molina), a Japanese fellow named Kenji (Yuki Matsuzaki), and Sonia (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), from India. Only Sonia has any esteem for Clouseau; the rest consider him a bumbler. I was amused by Pepperidge and Clouseau's game of one-upmanship in determining whose powers of observation are better. Clouseau can tell from looking at Pepperidge that he suffers from hip pain, while Pepperidge knows Clouseau recently lost his favorite cheese grater. That guy is good!
As a subplot to the crime-solving, Clouseau and his assistant, Nicole (Emily Mortimer), are struggling to put their brief, torrid affair behind them for the sake of their working relationship. In flashback, we see their first date, where Clouseau's interaction with a restaurant's wine rack (a nice bit of physical comedy) led to disaster. ("There was something about burning down a restaurant that ignited more illicit fires," Clouseau recalls.) With Sonia flirting with Clouseau and Vicenzo charming Nicole, jealousies are bound to arise.
The screenplay, which passed through many hands on its way to achieving mass-market genericness, is ultimately credited to three people: Martin himself (listed third) and Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber -- the same duo behind this year's extremely funny and smart Sundance hit 500 Days of Summer. (I can safely say there is not a single resemblance between this film and that one.) It bears some of the marks of a rewritten script, including a character, a political-correctness adviser played by Lily Tomlin, who is wholly extraneous. You could literally remove her scenes from the film altogether without affecting the story in any way. Then again, how often do you get to see Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin together?
Martin's flair for exuberant physical goofiness remains intact; he still has that twinkle in his eye that reminds you of the young silver-haired man with "happy feet." His supporting cast (which also includes Jean Reno and Jeremy Irons) is terrific, obviously, and while none of them will be putting this at the top of their resumes, they needn't be embarrassed by it, either.
I gauge a film like this partially by what I'm thinking about when I'm not laughing. Are the islands of chuckles surrounded by vast seas of annoyance and eye-rolling? Or do they float in an ocean that's benign, even pleasant? This time, it's the latter. The Pink Panther 2, while not a very good film, is at least a painless one. It's not irritating -- which, believe me, is a step up.
(Strange coincidence alert: The Pink Panther was directed by Shawn Levy, who had previously made Big Fat Liar, starring Frankie Muniz. The Pink Panther 2 was directed by Harald Zwart, who previously made Agent Cody Banks, starring ... Frankie Muniz. Frankie Muniz is the glue that holds Hollywood together.)