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Martin delivers a bad performance in 'Pink Panther 2'

The Pink Panther 2 (PG)

1 star out of 4

When Adam Sandler makes a movie, we expect it to be bad. It comes as no surprise. Nowadays, the same can be said about the once great Steve Martin.

There was a time when Martin could do no wrong, and that's the sad part. The man has proved time and again he is capable of true comic genius, yet for the better part of the last two decades, he seems perfectly content to churn out one stinking clunker after another.

In the case of the two "Pink Panther" movies, the disappointment is magnified as Martin tries, without a hint of success, to inhabit a role originated by the greatest comic actor of the last half-century. There are certain performers and their classic characters no one should ever try to revive and Peter Sellers' clueless inspector Jacques Clouseau is one of them.

It was impossible not to like Sellers in the role because beneath the pompous self-importance was a childlike innocence and irresistible sense of wonder. In Martin's indelicate hands, Clouseau is an effete and obnoxious blowhard, not to mention totally unfunny. Even when he's reduced to sad personal ebbs and desperately craving the audiences' sympathy, we never bite because he's so patently unlikeable.

As with most financially successful franchises, the 2006 "Pink Panther" movie allowed the studio to bring in some relatively high-octane supporting talent in order to lend the follow-up far more gravitas than it needs or deserves. Unlike Martin, most of these guys (including two Oscar nominees and an uncredited winner) haven't had a hit in years. In the case of Indian screen queen Aishwarya Rai, she's still looking for anything to establish her name with Western audiences. Hers is the most interesting character of the lot.

After a series of thefts of priceless artifacts, Clouseau's jealous boss (John Cleese) is pressured into adding him to a "dream team" of international investigators. Among them are a suave Italian (Andy Garcia), a determined Brit (Alfred Molina), a Japanese techno-geek and Clouseau's loyal sidekick Ponton (Jean Reno).

The fringe romance between Clouseau and professional subordinate Nicole (Emily Mortimer) established in the first outing is rehashed and it sputters along in a predictable manner. Along the way, it also makes Nicole look like a suffer-at-all-costs loser who would be completely adrift if not for the incidental attention paid to her by a man who has no idea of the true meaning of romance or gallant behavior.

To that end, the Clouseau character shares a few scenes with an "etiquette advisor" (Lily Tomlin) who attempts without success to educate him in the ways of political and social correctness. This is where the movie really hits rock-bottom.

Based on the audience demographic at the preview screening, the studio is trying to attract families but far too much of the material here is way beyond PG and at one point borders on R. Martin's character makes embarrassing, offensive comments, lasciviously leers and frequently insults women - and not in a happy-go-lucky way. Racism and misogyny were certainly not what creator Blake Edwards or Sellers had in mind when this character was originally conceived.

If there is any justice out there, the movie will be largely ignored by audiences, die a quick box office death and give the suits at Sony much to think about when Martin pushes for a third installment. (Sony/MGM)