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Martin Freeman, as Arthur Dent, may be the only actor
ever to play through an entire two hour movie wearing his bathrobe and pajamas. Dent is
Everyman, a Harold Lloyd for the 21st century, an unprepossessing, ordinary guy to whom
the most extraordinary things happen. He is the central figure in Douglas Adams' The
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which started in 1978 as a BBC
radio show, subsequently came out as a series of best-selling novels,
followed by a BBC
television series, computer
games, and now a summer blockbuster movie from the folks at Disney.
Such a history and such a devoted fandom raise expectations for the movie very high indeed. And Disney will surely appeal to the mass market with their film, a featherlight spoof loaded with grand CGI visuals--spaceships, flying dolphins, monstrous aliens, the amazing planet Magrathea where planets are custom-built for a super-rich clientele.
The movie has moments of amusing, gentle satire, particularly those directed at the great British bugaboo, the bureaucracy, and an endearing robot, Marvin--sort of an R2D2 with clinical depression. But it never attains a real zaniness--the over-the-top humor of, say, Monte Python. And the lead characters are insufficiently fleshed out to give any heft to what is, by definition, a highly episodic narrative structure.
It makes sense for Dent to be bland--he's the foil through whose eyes all the satire and bizarre goings on are taken in. At the start, his house is being demolished to make way for a new road. But he's quickly whisked off of Earth by his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), the compiler of the Guide. The quick exit is dictated by the fact that Earth itself is about to be demolished by extraterrestrials to make room for their hyperspace freeway--an amusing parallel. But the Prefect character is decidedly under-developed. Dent's love interest, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) is equally bland. The other major character, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), president of the galaxy, is arrogant and not-too-bright despite being two-headed. He's the character aimed for zaniness, but he comes off mostly frenetic and more than a little silly, but uninspired silliness.
Science fiction fans will enjoy Adams' spoofing of the genre; bits and pieces of many of the sci fi classics are alluded to and gently mocked. That plus the occasional satirical zinger and the fun visuals and special effects, all dished up at lightening speed, make for a pleasant few hours.
But the film version of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy stands mostly as a missed opportunity, given the potential of the underlying material for something truly special.
- Arthur Lazere