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Martin manages to avert disaster in passable 'Pink Panther' remake

Well, at least Steve Martin's trying to be funny again.

For months a black cloud of disaster has hovered over the remake of ''The Pink Panther." Originally scheduled to open last summer, it was later moved to the cinematic dog days of February. Martin's own record of reworking comedy classics has run from the profitable lameness of the ''Cheaper by the Dozen" movies to outright fiascoes like ''Sgt. Bilko." The original Peter Sellers ''Panther" movies -- the good ones, anyway -- are farces beloved by connoisseurs of precision slapstick. Things did not look good.

It's with palpable relief, then, that I can say this new version of the misadventures of Inspector Clouseau -- a prequel, officially -- isn't a black hole of unfunniness. Instead, it's another passably engaging Steve Martin vehicle: a few solid laughs, a lot of dead air, no earthly reason to exist. If it sends you out of the theater thirsting for the real thing, a box of five of the original movies has conveniently just arrived on DVD (minus 1975's ''The Return of the Pink Panther," sadly, but including the best of the lot, 1964's ''A Shot in the Dark").

If you've seen the trailer, with Martin's fey Clouseau mangling the pronunciation of ''hamburger," you've seen the best gag in the movie. Still, the new ''Panther" is harmless enough, even if it doesn't stand to advance Franco-American relations. A hard-charging Paris soccer coach (Jason Statham) has been murdered on the field and his priceless pink diamond ring stolen; suspicion falls on, among others, his pop singer girlfriend, Xania (Beyoncé Knowles). Vainglorious Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) assigns the worst police detective in France to head the case; that way, the boob will divert the media while he, Dreyfus, finds the killer and wins the French medal of honor.

Enter Martin in full gendarme regalia as Clouseau; no sooner has he taken the case than furniture gets broken, vases are smashed, and large metal globes go rolling into the streets to take out the front line of the Tour de France. Clouseau is assigned a watchdog assistant in the person of detective Gilbert Ponton, played by Jean Reno with the embarrassment proper to a French actor in a movie where everyone else talks wiz foony acc-zents.

This includes Kline, who trots out his crack ''Fish Called Wanda" timing, and England's Emily Mortimer as Clouseau's pert klutz of a secretary. Knowles, for her part, acts with her cleavage, her singing voice, and her big, brown eyes, which is enough to bowl over Clouseau and at least half of the audience. Clive Owen has a cameo as a smooth British secret agent; since Daniel Craig has been cast as the next James Bond, this is clearly as close as Owen's going to get.

Very occasionally, the new ''Panther" approaches the droll hilarity of the original movies -- a sight gag involving magnifying goggles is played beautifully straight -- but more often than not, Martin winks at the audience to let us know he knows he's being silly. Worse, the script makes the mistake of letting Clouseau solve the case legitimately rather than bumble serenely to victory, and that goes against everything Sellers and the old ''Pink Panther" movies stood for. Suffice to say that Shawn Levy, director of the ''Cheaper by the Dozen" movies, is no Blake Edwards; for every finely tuned slapstick fillip, there's a ton of messy, family-friendly buffoonery.

It's all in the balance. Not all of the old ''Pink Panther" movies had it, but at Sellers's peak, his Clouseau struck a perfect, clueless poise between idiocy and refinement -- between the suave gesture and the bone-rattling pratfall. Those movies were comedy ballet. The best Martin can do here, in one all-too-brief scene, is an inspired wild-and-crazy frug.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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