For the few beings left in the universe unfamiliar with the story, here it goes: Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), our leading man, wakes up to find his house about to be demolished to make way for a highway bypass. Little do the construction workers know that they along with the rest of the planet Earth are also being torn down later that afternoon to make way for a hyperspace bypass.
Arthur is rescued by his best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who reveals that he's really been an alien all this time, and an expert in galactic hitchhiking (he wrote the titular book on it). The two take refuge on a passing ship, unfortunately helmed by gruff, humorless, mean-spirited bureaucrats whose disposition can be summarized in the words Dick Cheney. Soon our heroes escape on board a fleet vessel manned by Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the president of the galaxy, a man who proves that two heads are not necessarily better than one. Also on board: romantic interest Tricia McMillan (Zooey Deschanel) and Marvin, a robot in need of some digitized Xanax (voiced by Alan Rickman).
A quest is begun for a mystical planet where the secret to life, the universe and everything is located. The answer, 42, is already known. The goal is to find the question. Along the way, they encounter a computer named Deep Thought (Helen Mirren), are chased by thermonuclear missiles and take on a disembodied cult leader named Humma Kuvula (John Malkovich).
"Hitchhiker's" was directed by first-timer Garth Jennings, a former commercial and music video director recommended by Spike Jonze, another former don of the music video. All this means is there's no telling what one can do after one has directed a music video. Jonze ("Three Kings," "Being John Malkovich") did some amazing work. Jennings may still need to learn that engaging characters, stories and action are only a few of the more obvious qualities separating movies from the mere tricks of commercials and videos.
Following in the wake of both radio and television versions, Jennings' film seems slapdash and thrown together, a mere platform on which to adroitly place the clever jokes of the source. As we know from countless Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller movies, jokes do not a movie make especially when they are as droll as they are in "Hitchhiker's." The humor of the bypass sequence and many others like it (an all-powerful computer brain succumbing to television, stodgy bureaucrats reciting poetry) is the kind deliciously lapped from the pages of a book but is cumbersome on the screen.
The individual moments of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" can be thoroughly amusing. As a whole, however, the project seems less necessary than inevitable, as if those behind it were most intent on wringing a few more dollars out of a franchise. Such a thing seems like something right out of the Douglas Adams universe. Unfortunately, there is nothing so novel to be found here. (PG) ** S
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