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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

(2005) *** Pg
110 min. Touchstone Pictures. Director: Garth Jennings. Cast: Martin Freeman, Dante 'Mos Def' Smith, Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell, John Malkovich.

You're likely to get a more accurate appraisal of Touchstone's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy from someone unfamiliar with its multifarious source material: the initial 1978 radio series, the five novels of the "increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's Trilogy," a BBC TV series, a text-based computer game, a stage version, and a radio revival. Fans will mostly be too busy sorting out their conflicting feelings about every choice made by author Douglas Adams's creative trustees.

The film version was a thorn in Adams's side. At least two full drafts by Adams were rejected before his untimely and fatal heart attack in May of 2001, at the age of 49. For more than 20 years, Hollywood poked The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with pitchforks in "Development Hell": possible talent included Ivan Reitman in the early '80s (who proposed Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd as stars) and, more recently Jay Roach (Austin Powers), who might have directed Hugh Laurie and Jim Carrey.

When Spike Jonze turned down the project, suggesting Garth Jennings (half of the video/commercial team "Hammer & Tongs"), the rumor mill roared to life again: Hugh Grant! Bill Murray (again)! Will Ferrell! With Adams gone, fans fretted as Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) was employed to whip Adams's draft into acceptable form. Executive producer (and Adams friend and associate) Robbie Stamp became the goodwill ambassador to fans, promising fealty to the author's vision, while reminding it always included flexibility to different media.

The resulting film is the optimist's version of what one would expect to result from such a tortured history. Adams famously chided Earth as being "mostly harmless," and the 2005 film is mostly Adams. Audiences can be grateful for the unique absurdist dimensions and freewheeling irreverence of Adams, which place the film in its own category of science-fiction comedy.

Though it may superficially conjure Galaxy Quest or Men in Black, where else would you find a story which begins with the decimation of Planet Earth, proceeds to torturous alien poetry, and climaxes with two mice threatening to perform brain surgery on the hero? Where else can you hear lines like "In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move"?

Martin Freeman (the heartsick Everyclerk of The Office) plays Arthur Dent, a self-defeatist schmo who awakens to find his house about to be demolished by crafty city planners. Arthur's oddball friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) whisks him off to a pub to drop two bombshells: Ford is an alien, and the Earth, too, is scheduled for demolition, by the "bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous" Vogons. In the context of post-blockbuster cinema, Jennings gleefully decimates not only Earth but the bombastic style of the likes of Roland Emmerich (Independence Day).

Ford hitches himself and Arthur a ride on a Vogon ship, and attempts to get Arthur up to speed on the universe with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a pocket electronic book for which Ford is a field researcher. With the sonorous stylings of Stephen Fry, the Guide dispenses no-bull advice (and, at times, unsympathetic hopelessness) about survival in space, as well as dry-witted but nevertheless brash histories of species, science, and culture. The Guide's witticisms are accompanied by humorous animations that are a cross between Macromedia Flash and airline commercials. (In other voice-over news, Helen Mirren supplies the voice of an ultimate computer.)

Soon enough, Ford and Arthur hook up with Tricia McMillan (Zooey Deschanel of Elf) and Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell of Galaxy Quest). Tricia, now calling herself "Trillian," once abandoned Arthur at a cocktail party when Zaphod stole her away with spaceman pick-up lines. Zaphod, newly-elected President of the Universe, can't be bothered with his duties, so he's stolen a high-tech spaceship called the Heart of Gold and kidnapped himself for an indefinite joyride.

The Vogons, with Vice President Questular Rontok (Anna Chancellor), organize the effort to retrieve him and the ship while Arthur busies himself with trying to find a good cup of tea, win back "Trillian," and generally stay alive. Adams invented for the screen John Malkovich's creepy cultist Humma Kavula, who sends Zaphod and company on an errand. Shortly thereafter, Trillian is promptly kidnapped, then rescued by her three friends, marking a midsection Wizard of Oz-like divergence from the original source material. In fact, this PG-rated adventure—though far too weird to be described as Disney-fied—should prove to be fun for the whole family.

If this sounds like short-attention-span theatre, it is. The upside to this manic, phantasmagorical aproach is significant: it's like being sprayed with the proverbial clownish seltzer bottle, except filled with absinthe and bubbling in-jokes for the H2G2 faithful (fans' hearts will warm at the inclusion of the banjo-led "Journey of the Sorcerer" theme). The downside is that almost nothing sticks like it should, including most of the characters. Eager-to-please Jennings too often blunts Adams's dry humor with Joby Talbot's intrusive musical underscore, or worse. Some of Fry's choice narration plays over the continuous action and dialogue of the characters--there's a limit to audience multitasking, and the gags regularly seem like they're running for a finish line.

The filmmakers gracefully apply what little restraint they have to the casting. A skilled reactor, Freeman eventually grows into the role of Dent, who doesn't seem like a real character here until he's truly stretched to his limits (oddly, losing planet Earth doesn't faze him much at the outset). When Bill Nighy—who scores the only live-action bull's eye as planet architect Slartibartfast—gives Arthur a wondrous tour of outer and inner space, Freeman looks suitably gobsmacked; Freeman also handles the psuedo-heroic and romantic beats without looking unduly like a twit.

The friendly fire between Adams's words and Jennings' visual style crowds out the humans. Mos Def miscalculates with an understated performance that recedes into the action (take notice, anyway, of his humorously loping physicalizations). Deschanel is perky and pretty, but generic until an oddly affecting scene involving a new Adams invention: the Point-of-View Gun, which allows the shooter temporarily to inflict her or his perspective on a chosen target. Trillian finally gets Zaphod to suppress his maniacal narcissism and see through her eyes; in the process, Deschanel emotes skillfully.

Winking and pointing like he's hopped up on every recreational drug in the known universe, Rockwell is the only one who matches the movie's pace and energy (decide for yourself if that's a good thing). Counterpointed by his depressive, drawling "paranoid android" Marvin (Warwick Davis; voice of Alan Rickman), Zaphod comes into detailed relief: he's a two-headed, three-armed id, oversexed and under-endowed in the brain department. A yee-hah amalgam of southern charmers (Elvis, Bill Clinton) and smarm-ers (our current commander-in-chief), he retorts dismissively to a criticism, "I'm president of the galaxy; I don't get a lot of time for reading." (Look for an an independent-minded young actor's one-line cameo as Beeblebrox-booster Gag Halfrunt.)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fumbles its way along and never finds a satisfactory rhythm, but no one can accuse it of being afraid to experiment: the opening-credit sequence announces the film's Monty Python-esque comic energy with a rhapsodic song by a super-intelligent dolphin choir ("So Long & Thanks for All the Fish"). By the end-credit scroll, when Jennings shoehorns in a vintage Guide entry by Adams about "a terrible miscalculation of scale," it may be tempting to level the same criticism at this eye-popping comedy. Let's just paraphrase Python and concede that it may be alright for something completely different from this beloved but well-worn material.

[For Groucho's interview with executive producer Robbie Stamp, click here and for his review of Stamp's book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Filming of the Douglas Adams Classic, click here.]

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