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Without a clue

Martin stumbles as the new Clouseau

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The Age of Aquarius has given way to the Age of Acquisition. Perhaps the 2000s will be remembered most of all for their lack of originality. Director Shawn Levy exemplifies Hollywood hubris by turning out a derivative retread of the '60s cycle of Blake Edwards Pink Panther comedies.

Steve Martin, who also co-wrote The Pink Panther screenplay with Len Blum (Meatballs, Stripes), steps into Peter Sellers' shoes as the hapless, half-witted Inspector Jacques Clouseau, who gets invited to Paris to find the killer of a soccer team coach murdered in front of a stadium full of fans, including his beautiful fiancee (Beyoncé Knowles).

The man who has requested Clouseau for the case, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline), hopes Clouseau's idiotic ways will distract public attention long enough to allow Dreyfus to break the case and win the French Medal of Honor. As in the original Pink Panther, Inspector Clouseau is a pompous, vain, but sometimes lovable oaf, as well as a parody of bureaucratic inefficiency.

Levy essentially uses the original Pink Panther template without any real modifications, other than making his France look remarkably like America. In packed soccer stadiums, fans in face-paint do the wave. Brit and American actors largely play the French, who exhibit the prissy manners Middle America attributes to Europeans. With their atrocious Elmer Fudd accents, they desire not to "awouse suspicion" or ask, "May I be vewy fwank with you?" In an effort to juice up the series, jokes about Viagra and e-mail attempt to assure us we aren't watching something past its shelf life.

The new Pink Panther is stupid in many of the same ways as the original series, which became increasingly so as it aged. Clouseau has a problematic relationship to gravity and a banana peel seemingly embossed on his heels. There is slapstick galore, from conventional mishaps involving priceless vases and fountain pens to a running gag in which the cyclists who clog Paris' streets repeatedly topple over like bowling pins. Levy and Martin's Pink Panther believes that a joke told once is even better told again.

The original Pink Panther films were not always works of consistent comic genius, either. What they did often have was a swinging-'60s spirit and a touch of naughtiness partly attributable to Sellers' own playboy-goofball attitude, Henry Mancini's boozy, insinuating saxophone, the high-hat tinkling theme song, and the sense, in the cartoon credits, of adults taking over the playpen.

But contemporary comedy often shows workmanlike joylessness and an arid brand of "hilarity" that looks pie-graphed and calculated by Hollywood marketeers. Nothing like frivolity or mirth or improvisational lunacy ever leaks into such carefully shrink-wrapped Hollywood comedies. While Martin has become the maestro of the cinematic rehash (Cheaper By the Dozen, The Out-of-Towners, Father of the Bride), at times he manages to invest this unimaginative retread with some comic sparks -- sparks increasingly rare as his film career careens into self-parody.

With his veal-pink skin and cottony hair, Martin has perfected a certain hunched-over, squinty-eyed, older-man variation on the younger spaz fraternity of Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. Where Bill Murray has reworked his goofball persona into older and wiser -- and better -- roles, Martin has gone backward. The veneer of subversive cool he once wore in his "Saturday Night Live" days has been body-snatched and replaced by the often irritating sight of an older actor doing a variation on the same old, same old, like those regrettable Rolling Stones, caterwauling and thrashing about with a mania that verges on frightening.

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