(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
I never had any interest in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and music video vet Garth Jennings’ cinematic adaptation doesn’t make my indifference seem unjustified. Not that the film – about a schlep named Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, from the BBC’s The Office) who survives the planet’s annihilation and, with his alien friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), embarks on a humorous journey through the galaxy – is apocalyptically bad. Rather, it’s simply that the late Adams’ dry, ironic humor comes across as second-rate Monty Python via Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, and his aimless, vignette-heavy narrative is an emotional void where random, slapstick gags and a dedication to strange names and freaky futuristic gizmos obliterate any semblance of captivating human (or interspecies) interaction.
After bureaucratic Vogon monsters destroy Earth in order to make way for a newfangled hyperspace express route, Dent (wearing only his pajamas and a bathrobe) and Prefect hitch a ride with the universe’s two-headed rogue president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) and his girlfriend Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), a pixie with wanderlust who had previously spurned Arthur for being too button-downed. Their planet-hopping adventure takes them to the lair of Zaphod’s political rival Humma Kavula (John Malkovitch) and the Vogons’ home planet, all in an attempt to uncover The Ultimate Question about life, the universe, and everything, as well as to recover a gun that forces people to see things from the user’s perspective. But Adams’ novel, bereft of a linear plot, is unfortunately just a series of goofy-sci-fi shorts, and the foursome’s quest – aided by the titular intergalactic handbook and a manic depressive robot named Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman) – barely garners laughs from its depiction of a petty, paperwork-inundated cosmos that’s similar to our own world.
Jennings’ mockery of epic filmmaking conventions (in an extended pull-back shot of the Vogon demolition fleet), as well as a few clever space-age gadgets – including a lightsaber-looking knife that toasts breads while you slice it, and a “thinking cap” that enhances brainpower via squeezed lemons – have a goofy charm. Too bad the director focuses more on sight gags than on the long, awkward pauses and verbal non sequiturs that characterize the best UK-flavored comedy. His film is at once bloated on fantastical set design, outlandish wardrobes, and wacky extraterrestrials (many created by Jim Henson’s creature workshop) and yet tonally flat. And things aren’t helped by its lead performances, which – except for the superb Mos Def, who brings a uniquely bizarre charisma to Prefect – are either bland and colorless (Freeman’s Arthur and Deschanel’s Trillian) or gratingly over-the-top (Rockwell’s Zaphod). Mildly amusing in spurts, this Hitchhiker’s turns out to be a disappointingly potholed ride.