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Hitching a ride through galactic grotesques

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The cult following, especially among young people, of the Douglas Adams novels --- and the radio and television series they spawned --- will probably guarantee the profitability of the new feature-length film based on his signature book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Without that large and presumably eager audience, however, I doubt that the adaptation would attract a public commensurate with the historic reputation of the novels, which, judging by the film at least, must be what is known as an acquired taste.

An odd combination of science fiction, fantasy, parody, and satire, the picture proceeds through numerous episodes of exaggerated and sophomoric silliness horribly similar to the late and unlamented Monty PythonShow of years ago. (Personally, for British humor, I've always preferred the cheeky, lower-class vitality of Benny Hill, with all his corny, exuberant vulgarity, to the laborious whimsy of those vapid Oxford twits beating an absurdity into a pulp). Based on an acceptably outrageous premise, Hitchhiker's plot manipulates its characters through sequences of increasing absurdity until it reaches a surprisingly predictable downbeat conclusion.

A rich, cultured voice introduces the situation and intermittently reads from what must be the guidebook of the title, informing us that humans constitute the third smartest inhabitants of Earth, behind the dolphins and another, even higher species revealed at the end (don't ask). After attempting for years to warn humanity of the impending destruction of the planet at countless aquatic shows, the dolphins finally depart en masse, singing the compelling "So Long and Thanks for the Fish," possibly the funniest moment in the movie.

A visiting alien, Ford Prefect (Mos Def) warns his friend, the pathetic loser Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), that Earth will be obliterated to make room for some sort of intergalactic bypass, so he and Arthur hitch a ride on a Vogon ship and their adventures begin.

Those adventures consist of a series of encounters on several planets with a number of grotesque creatures, while they attempt to find the meaning of everything (it's the number 42, but don't ask) and escape the pursuing Vogons, sluggish, corpulent monsters who torture captives by reading them wretched poetry in juicy, clotted upper-class Brit.

At one point Ford and Arthur land on the spaceship of the moronic president of the galaxy, whose two heads make him twice as stupid as anyone else, and who talks very like George W. Bush. They bounce around the galaxy on that ship, accompanied by Arthur's love interest, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) and a robot suffering severe depression.

Many of the episodes exist merely to display some extreme (and sometimes extremely fatuous) concept --- the Improbability Drive, which takes them around the galaxy, for example, for some reason at one point temporarily transforms the space travelers into yarn puppets (again, don't ask), and the Arthur figure, suffering from motion sickness, vomits a large wad of multicolored strings. In perhaps the most disquieting moment, a character named Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) who consists of a head and shoulders propelled by innumerable skinny metal legs, removes his glasses, which turn out to be his eyes.

The weapon that enables the hitchhikers and their companions to defeat an army of Vogons is the point-of-view gun, which changes the enemy's point of view to one's own; wielded by a depressed robot, it's not only literary but lethal.

Strangely, the accumulation of absurdities and grotesques rapidly diminishes in what the writers and director apparently believe is fascination, and in combination with the fatuous characters, soon grows colossally dull: Repeated often enough, even the bizarre turns bland.

The essentially insipid actors accentuate that blandness through their unvarying adherence to some primitive characterization, repeating uninteresting dialogue over and over and maintaining a simpleminded consistency of expression and gesture. The alleged star, Martin Freeman, in particular lacks anything resembling presence and certainly displays little more than a victim's passivity whether the scene demands action or emotion.

Nobody in the whole picture performs with any distinction at all, with the possible exception of Sam Rockwell as the galactic president, but the consistency of his hyperbolic style grows as annoying as the vapid underplaying of the rest of the cast. The answer to the meaning of the universe may indeed be 42, but the route to that answer runs through some other film, or perhaps even in a galaxy far away...

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (PG), starring Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Alan Rickman, John Malkovich; directed by Garth Jennings. Brockport Strand, Canandaigua Theatres, Cinemark Tinseltown, Geneseo Theatres, Greece Ridge 12, Eastview Cinema, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Vintage Drive-In

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