"Seems Like Old Times" invites unflattering comparisons and then strains to reinforce them.

Producer Ray Stark, screenwriter Neil Simon and director Jay Sandrich obviously intended to whip up a frothy, madcap entertainment in the tradition of the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. Their failure to "make one like they used to" incurs a double liability: In addition to wasting resources and disappointing expectations, "Seems Like Old Times" -- now at area theaters -- appears to trifle with an older and better movie.

Simon has imposed his characteristic forms of gratuitous wisecracking and trivialized topical commentary on a situation cribbed from the 1942 romantic comedy-melodrama "The Talk of the Town." Directed by George Stevens from a script by Irwin Shaw and Sidney Buchman, "The Talk of the Town" was organized around a triangel created by the fugitive status of Cary Grant, a militant factory worker who escapes from jail after being framed for arson and murder. He takes refuge in the attic of a summer home rented by schoolteacher Jean Arthur to law professor Ronald Colman, who is researching a book and awaiting imminent nomination to the Supreme Court.

In the Simon update, a ridiculous context is established from the outset. Inheriting the Grant role, Chevy Chase turns on the smugness as a wiseacre writer (he gets the lion's share of Simon's stale quips) who is abducted by two surly hoods and compelled to join their stickup of a bank in Carmel, Calif. No reason really. Simon needs an excuse to get the show started and doesn't perceive that he's getting it off on a lame foot.

Somehow making his way south after being ditched by the real felons, Chase seeks refuge at the Brentwood home of ex-wife Goldie Hawn, a criminal attorney identified as a dizzily adorable soft touch.

The house is already overrun with stray pets, and Hawn is always accepting responsibility for her incorrigible minority-group clients after plea-bargaining on their behalf. For example, she employs a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] addresses her as "boss," she scolds him, "Don't call me 'boss!' Didn't you see 'Roots'?" Some days the quips just don't come, I guess.

Hawn lives with her second husband, Charles Grodin, who (wouldn't you know it?) happens to be a district attorney. He is also being considered for attorney general by the governor, George Grizzard, whose arrival for a dinner a party is timed to drive everyone in the household into gibbering, cowardly panic. Snapped by bank cameras, Chase is a well-publicized wanted man. Grodin is naturally apprehensive about political scandal; Hawn deceives him and scrambles around the house desperately trying to hide the fugitive. Rather complacent about it all, Chase spends his confinement trying to seduce his ex-wife.

Watching this minature merry-go-round revolve listlessly to a smirky conclusion, the words "No conviction, no conviction" kept echoing in my aching head. Although I'm persuaded that in the best of circumstances Chase, Hawn and Grodin would not have radiated from the screen as brightly as Grant, Arthur and Colman, the utterly inane tone and lackluster presentation of "Seems Like Old Times" conspire to diminish the personality resources and comis skills its costars do command.

No one recalls "The Talk of the Town" as a great screwball comedy, but it remains lively and attractive because the characters hold serious convictions and develop strong bonds in the midst of comic turbulence. The costars of "Seems Like Old Times" must make exaggerated faces, bicker and bustle about without benefit of underlying traits that would dignify and authenticate them as human beings.

The casting of Grodin as the suitor presumed to be second-best in both "It's My Turn" and "Seems Like Old Times" is an intriguing puzzler. Standards in leading men really have declined if filmmakers now perceive Michael Douglas and Chevy Chase as self-evidently superior romantic competition to Charles Grodin. Far from playing Ralph Bellamy to their Cary Grant, Grodin has a superficial blandness that conceals a cagily ingratiating comie personality. His characters seem to enjoy the last laugh in these pictures, unbeknownst to their screenwriters. After sizing up the heroines in "It's My Turn" and "Seems Like Old Times," how could any sensible person believe that losing the girl could be a [WORDS ILLEGIBLE]