`Hitchhiker' gets a lift from its narration


April 29, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The cosmic cult comedy of the '70s and '80s, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, began life as a BBC radio show and had a smash afterlife as a novel. Now it comes to the screen as a motormouth of a movie, part irritating, part inspired.

Director Garth Jennings got his start in music videos. Maybe that's why it peaks in the opening number: an Esther Williams sing-and-swim done entirely by dolphins. It rivals "Putting on the Ritz" from Young Frankenstein for killing hilarity and "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's Life of Brian for offbeat catchiness.

When Jennings daringly builds on a quirky idea - like dolphins warning humans of impending doom while we think they're merely entertaining us - the results crack you up, then give you stitches. But he never sets a satisfying overall tempo and he rarely brings out the best in his actors. They overflow with charm and talent but can't compete with droll narration and the deadpan cartoons that illustrate it.

Stephen Fry's voice-over (taken straight out of the book) peppers the film with absurd flourishes. There's a riotous one about what a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias think as each falls to Earth. There's another about the Babel fish - stick it in your ear and even animal languages become immediately comprehensible, so a man milking a cow suddenly senses, with overwhelming panic, the deep love that she feels for him.

But a movie, unlike a radio show or a free-form novel, can't thrive solely on exuberant touches. For long stretches, the film stays alive because of the humor it throws to the sidelines - too often, the main action stops dead. TV sitcoms used to supply a laugh track to do the work of a real live audience; the narration of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy provides a wit track to do the work of real live filmmakers.

Operating from a script by Karey Kirkpatrick of Chicken Run and the original radio writer and novelist, Douglas Adams (who died in 2001 of a heart attack at a health club at age 49), Jennings does keep the laugh quotient sky-high during the setup. An Earthman, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), has luckily befriended Ford Prefect (Mos Def), an alien disguised as an unemployed actor. A researcher for the best-selling electronic book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Prefect knows exactly when Earth will be leveled to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Prefect rescues Dent with a hitched ride on a spaceship that unfortunately belongs to dreaded Vogons, a race of stupid bureaucrats who look like leatherette relatives of Charles Laughton. They write terrible poetry but actually do run the galaxy - unlike galaxy president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), whose sole function is to deflect attention from their power.

Dent, Prefect and Beeblebox become unlikely allies, along with a dishy Earthwoman named Trish (Zooey Deschanel), on a quest to find the meaning of life. How Monty Python is that?

As they follow Adams' frolicking attacks on officiousness - and his roistering celebrations of coincidence throughout the galaxy - Jennings and company go after the Python blend of deftness and daftness, down to the mixture of medium-tech and no-tech special effects, from animatronic creatures to stick-figure caricatures. But the deftness eludes them. Unlike the Pythons at their peak (in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), they don't always merge their slapstick and their verbal horseplay. And they don't come up with scenes that let the main performers' energy explode. Freeman's quizzical normality gets swamped by all the zaniness, and Rockwell skirts the line between too much and too, too much (so does John Malkovich, in a gaudy cameo). Mos Def, who approaches brilliance with his evocation of not-quite-human responses, becomes a little repetitive. Luckily, Deschanel is canny and adorable, so our eyes go to her even when Jennings doesn't capture her full wide-eyed glow.

Bill Nighy gives off a ticklish dryness as custom planet constructor Slartibartfast, who has a thing for fjords and won an award for the job he did on Norway. Generally, the actors who come off the funniest have the most limited roles. That includes Alan Rickman, who brings his trademark doleful tones to that famous depressed robot Marvin the Paranoid Android. Every time Marvin opens his mouth, Rickman's slough of despond wins laughs as surely as Chewbacca's yowls did in the Star Wars saga. Marvin, visually, grows boring; whatever nuance and persuasiveness this bot has derives from Rickman's performance of his lines.

And Rickman's success becomes a metaphor for the movie. Only the soundtrack chatter gives a comic soul to this rattletrap machine.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel

Directed by Garth Jennings

Released by Disney/Touchstone

Rated PG

Sun Score **1/2 (2 stars & 1 half star)

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