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Mostly Harmless

 

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Garth Jennings, USA/UK, 2005

Rating: 3.4

 

Posted: April 29, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Douglas Adams' revered The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been, among other things, a radio serial, a BBC mini-series and, most famously, a lightly wry novel (the first of a five-part "trilogy") steeped in a distinctly British sense of whimsy. Part of the joy of these various incarnations of H2G2 -- the shorthand by which the franchise is known to fans -- is its facility for mining laughs from the mundane. The world ends not due to interstellar war but to make way for a hyperspace expressway; the aliens responsible for this demolition are more officious bureaucrats than a conquering evil empire; the protagonist, Arthur Dent, is less interested in the fantastic panoramas of outer space than he is in a soothing cup of tea.

So there's a distinctly Adams-ian irony to the fact that the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of Hitchhiker's is, well, a bit mundane. As directed by Garth Jennings, it exhibits a surprising amount of attention to plot mechanics (although not the book's plot -- a large chunk of this film is created from whole cloth, including a rather pointless interlude featuring John Malkovich as a spindly-legged religious cult leader).

To be sure, much of Adams' endearing silliness is left intact or even expanded upon, as in an opening musical sequence in which the world's dolphins sing a rousing goodbye "So Long and Thanks for all the Fish" (the title of one of the subsequent books in the series) before deserting the soon-to-be-demolished planet. Modern technology allows some impressive visual sequences, including one in which the "infinite improbability drive" powering the spaceship ferrying our heroes across the galaxy re-imagines them as creatures made of yarn. (The blubbery Vogons, whose role is expanded here to awkwardly fill the required "villain" role, are also nicely rendered by Jim Henson's crew.) And sequences quoting from the titular interplanetary handbook are delivered in a perfect deadpan by Stephen Fry.

But for all its winsome, unself-conscious absurdity, there's a disappointingly rigid flatness to H2G2 that, while not mortal, does significantly arrest the film's comic momentum. Its fairly linear plotline is one culprit, underlined by a couple of performances that fail to straddle the fine line between understatement and dullness. Martin Freeman, so effective as the lovelorn schlub in BBC's original The Office, brings expressive facial features to the role of Dent, but while we like him, his passivity makes it hard to root for him in the script's few take-charge moments. The rapper Mos Def brings little to the role of Guide contributor Ford Prefect but his melanin; he's more plot device than fully realized character here, and his delivery of some key bits of Hitchhiker lore -- for example, his reliance on towels as indispensable space-travel aids -- undersells their inherent ridiculousness.

Sam Rockwell comes closest to stealing the show as two-headed galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox; Rockwell invests this clueless, impulsive gadabout as a cross between Owen Wilson's roster of charismatic slackers and George W. Bush. He adds zing to most every scene he's in. The quietly pretty Zooey Deschanel adequately comports herself as Trillian, an Earth girl who once ditched hidebound Arthur for the flashy Zaphod. She isn't given much to do, but she at least convinces us of Trillian's yen for new experiences before she becomes a standard-issue damsel-in-distress. And Alan Rickman's line readings for the depressive "paranoid android" Marvin are consistently good for a chuckle, making up for Marvin's jarringly cutesy look here. (The original Marvin from the BBC version, looking like a clunky, expressionless Dr. Who leftover, makes a brief appearance in one scene.)

Hitchhiker's flaws aren't fatal; to call them "failings" would be unnecessarily harsh. But there's no denying that they plunge the film into a kind of suspended animation. What had the potential to be hilarious, in an acquired-taste, Monty Python sort of way, ends up merely "cute." H2G2 delivers a fair amount of chuckles, but it's an even more lightweight entertainment than the book from which it springs. It's funny and even occasionally winning but ultimately, to quote a Guide passage about Earthlings, "mostly harmless."

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