February 1984. Following the lukewarm reception of Trail Of The Pink Panther, 1982's first attempt at recovery since star Peter Sellers died in 1980, series creator Blake Edwards and studio MGM release the eighth Pink Panther movie, Curse Of The Pink Panther. They substitute no-name actor Ted Wass for Sellers as a New York detective (with Roger Moore as the rhinoplasticized Inspector Jacques Clouseau). They assume that if they get enough series regulars to appear in cameos (filmed for the previous film), the public will fork over the money and forgive. They do not, and the movie tanks. Wass, it should be noted, is only slightly more convincing in the role than Ed Wood's chiropractor, Tom Mason, was in filling in for the deceased Bela Lugosi in the legendary bronzed turd, Plan 9 From Outer Space (and Mason was nearly a foot taller than the horror legend and spent most of the movie with a cape over his face).

Strike 1.

August 1993. In another attempt to resurrect the franchise, MGM introduces to suspicious fans a relatively unknown Italian comedian named Roberto Benigni as the son of the bumbling Clouseau in Son Of The Pink Panther. While the wide-eyed Benigni would go on to win an Oscar for 1997's Holocaust drama, Life Is Beautiful, life is definitely not beautiful for the studio, which sees their cash cow dry up after being savaged by the critics and most painfully, ignored by ticket buyers, who waited for the video...and skipped it then, too. Sadly, Bobby McFerrin's opening take on Henry Mancini's infectous theme is the best part of the movie.

Strike 2.

June 2005. MGM announces that their August 5th berth for their very loose remake of the 1963 original, which is to star Steve Martin, has been cleared so that new corporate owners Sony Pictures can have more time to plan a PR campaign. The movie will now come out in February 2006. Sony does not comment on the fact that early reviews have been largely negative.

And here comes the pitch...

February 2006. The new Pink Panther is released, and it's not very good, either.

Strike 3...and time to euthanize the poor cat.
 
Steve Martin is a genuinely funny guy, which is why when you see his name under the "Screenplay By" title, you expect a lot. And we're not talking about broad and irrelevant Cheaper By The Dozen Steve Martin or Bringing Down The House Steve Martin, as that guy is as funny as a toenail in the onion dip. No, we're talking The Jerk funny, L.A. Story funny - Bowfinger funny. That guy's not in this movie, though.

In The Pink Panther, Martin is only giving us quick impressions of funny - and someone else's funny, to boot - and it's ultimately about as amusing as the guy who doesn't know that it's time to give up greeting people with "Whassup!" A famous soccer coach (Jason Statham) is murdered in broad daylight in front of thousands of fans, and his prized rock, the world renowned diamond, The Pink Panther, has gone missing. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline), suffering from Susan Lucci Syndrome after being nominated for the coveted Medal Of Honor seven times without winning it once, hires the oafish Clouseau (Martin), to throw the press off the scent so he and his crack squad of investigators can solve the case and emerge as heroes. At least that's the plan.

Tiredly aping the kind of well-planned slapstick that Sellers trademarked in his zany capers and mimicking his outrageous accent is all Martin really does here. It's like a connect-the-dots picture that's mostly finished, or a stuck jar lid that someone else loosens for you - there's not much satisfaction in finishing someone else's work, especially when they did it so well. Plus, we get it already - Clouseau talks funny, Clouseau isn't that bright, Clouseau makes a mess wherever he goes. How many new laughs can you squeeze out of that? And what's with the elder abuse? One gag early on features an old lady being cracked on the skull with a flying police siren, and another with an old man careening backwards out of control in his wheelchair. At least give us a quick shot of them getting up again, as you would if they were a child or a cute and fuzzy bunny.

There are some decent bits, though. A scene in which Clouseau plays Good Cop/Bad Cop with a suspect (not realizing you use two cops for the routine) works, and another featuring former Bond contender Clive Owen as a secret agent named 006 is fairly clever. Beyoncé Knowles is at least nice to look at as the obvious first suspect (and performs the obligatory song), and button-cute Emily Mortimer is good as Clouseau's secretary. Kline more-or-less phones it in, his accent fluctuating from is-it-French to upper-crust English. Even if you have never seen one of the nine movies that came before it, you know that he will go from cocksure to manic by the time Clouseau gets through, if only from the way he telegraphs it, like a silent comedy actor might.

Part of what made Sellers' Pink Panther movies so much fun to watch was the simple yet intricate cat-and-mouse routine that Sellers and Herbert Lom (as Dreyfus) cultivated over seven pictures together (only four of them Pink Panther movies). They never really let it get stale, and were rewarded time and again. As gifted as Martin and Kline might be at comedy separately (and remember that Kline won an ultra-rare Oscar for his comedic role in 1988's A Fish Called Wanda), this is passionless mercenary work by both of them. It is comedy with a "k", like Cheez Whiz is to cheese, scientifically engineered to make us feel good while we're consuming it, while we go forth unaware of the regret we'll feel afterward, when we've had a little time to digest and lament our lighter wallets.