The Hitchhiker's Guide: not earth-shattering.

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April 28 2005 4:23 PM

Don't Panic

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is smart, if not earth-shattering, fun.

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A quiet ride

If you've been feeling bludgeoned by the cults of J.R.R. Tolkien and G.W. Lucas, you'll find the cult of Douglas Adams a happy tonic. Adams' pithy 1979 novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is like Star Wars rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse with a liberal dose of Monty Python. (There are, of course, some physics and philosophy folded into the mix, but it's nothing you need to worry about unless you're writing a doctoral thesis and/or have a lot of time on your hands.) Hitchhiker's is above all a quintessential English comedy of understatement, in which the more cosmic the scale, the more niggling the complaints. Getting a proper cup of tea, getting past an ossified bureaucrat who won't budge without a form of the proper color, getting through (with a fixed smile) an excruciating poetry reading. … No matter their shape, language, or number of eyes, these antagonists are terribly English. What gives the story some emotional heft is the compulsion of its ordinary-bloke protagonist, Arthur Dent, to say, "Sir, I exist" to a disorderly, indifferent universe.

Adams wrote Hitchhiker's first as a radio play, but it's a natural movie, too—for English actors steeped in England's unshakable tolerance for absurdity. Hollywood is another kettle of kippers. And there was the rub for poor Adams, who always dreamed of seeing Hitchhiker's on the big screen. English film executives didn't have the money, and American film executives didn't get the joke—or, if they got it, didn't think the American multiplex crowd would go along. Lost in what must have seemed a universe of Vogons masquerading as hipsters, Adams died (at the age of 49) before seeing the green light.

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The project that survived him, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Disney), is an extremely pleasant, consistently amusing diversion that is never as uproarious as you might hope. But don't panic, as the Guide would say. In a pinch, it will do.

With a screenplay credited to Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick (who pruned, embellished, and reshaped Adams' original script), the picture opens with narration by "the Guide," Stephen Fry—the perfect voice, with a Wildean fatalism about the ridiculousness of it all. One of the filmmakers' best moves is to illustrate Fry's galactic history lessons with elegant little instruction-manual cartoons, and to end the overture with a lyrical vision of dolphins rising up into space to the cheerful ditty "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish"—the title of a Hitchhiker's sequel and the catchiest number of its kind since the Pythons' "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

Martin Freeman (the lovelorn Tim in the original BBC The Office) plays Arthur Dent, who wakes up to discover massive bulldozers preparing to demolish his house to make way for a bypass. The workmen are implacable in their assertion that Arthur ought to have taken action "at the appropriate time." But the team is quickly superceded in importance by the arrival of massive Vogon ships preparing to demolish Earth to make way for a bypass. They are implacable in their assertion that earthlings ought to have taken action "at the appropriate time."

Arthur discovers that his best mate, Ford Prefect (Mos Def!), is not an unemployed actor from Guildford but an alien from the vicinity of Betelgeuse; and that the obnoxious idiot (Sam Rockwell) who seduced the woman of his dreams, Trisha McMillan (Zooey Deschanel), with the line, "Wanna see my spaceship?" is Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the galaxy, and does, in fact, have a spaceship. It's stolen, however: a super-duper prototype with an "Improbability Drive" that makes spatial leaps based on statistically unlikely (but poetically just) coincidences. (You could think of Dickens' narratives as having unacknowledged Improbability Drives.) Arthur and Ford thumb a ride, and thereby hangs—or hurtles through hyperspace—a tale.

The novel's rambling plot now becomes a Holy-Grail-ish quest to find … well, best not to give away too many sight gags, which are the film's most reliable sources of amusement. The Vogons—bent over, bloated yet desiccated, almost literally the bowels of the English bureaucracy—are rubbery creatures from the Jim Henson workshop: wonderful disgusting blobs. A new character, Zaphod's jealous rival Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), is a torso on expandable clickety tentacles, the perfect visual correlative for the actor's fey-squid delivery. The paddles on the Vogon planet that pop up and whack the heroes in the face when they make the mistake of having an idea are like a delirious marriage of Orwell and the Three Stooges. And those Dada-collage Improbability Drive montages! The artificiality makes it clear that we're watching a parody, while the scale and inspiration infuse the parody with awe. The mix of the mundane and the otherworldly is sublime.

But if the director, music-video whiz Garth Jennings, can knock you silly with a visual punch line, he can't get the timing of a verbal one. He doesn't trust the long take; he chops up scenes and loses the extra, awkward beat that great English comedy demands. Often, the movie is frantic when it needs to be deadpan and slack when it needs some farcical urgency. Freeman is perfectly cast as Arthur, with the right doughy abashment. But he stays inside himself, and his scenes have no snap.

I like Freeman: This is not, if you'll pardon the expression, an earth-shattering criticism. It's a quibble. But the quibbles add up. A key sequence revolving around a computer called Deep Thought—among the book's most hilarious for that English overstatement/understatement thing—is simply not funny. Its programmers/high priests are young girls who don't have the necessary stammer when they pose the question on the meaning of "Life, the universe, and everything." As the computer's voice, the great Helen Mirren isn't too sharp, either. So, the comic fulcrum of the whole enterprise is a non-event.

Two of the American actors work out fine. Ford Prefect really should be English, but the brilliant Mos Def knows how to lighten and dry out his readings the way a smart English comic would. The radiantly pretty Zooey Deschanel plays Tricia, aka Trillian, with what I can only describe as a hyper-alert spaciness. She's right on the nerd-goddess nexus: Wowza. Rockwell makes a good entrance as Zaphod—a toss of the long blond hair, a wink, a point—but it's a one-joke character. Well, that's not quite true. For reasons too complicated to explain, he has a second head with a more aggressive personality: two jokes. But then he loses No. 2 and goes back to just the one joke, now bled dry.

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