'Hitchhiker': Tom Thumb

Martin Freeman, left, Sam Rockwell, Mos Def and Zooey Deschanel help propel
Martin Freeman, left, Sam Rockwell, Mos Def and Zooey Deschanel help propel "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," but it ultimately runs out of fuel. (By Laurie Sparham -- Touchstone Pictures)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

As bad days go, this one starts out exceedingly awful. Every-Earthman Arthur Dent, "ape descendant" and hapless in matters of the heart, awakens to the sight of an army of bulldozers queuing up in the front yard. His house, unbeknown to him, has been scheduled for demolition. Bad, bad, bad news. Except, as Arthur stretches out in front of the bulldozers, his best friend, Ford Prefect, delivers even worse news: Not only is Arthur's house being mowed over to make way for a highway but so is, like, the entire planet . Right now. Well, okay, they do have time for a quick pint.

Oh, and by the way, Ford is an alien.

And . . . according to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," the only way for Arthur and Ford to protect their heinies from instant annihilation is to stick out a thumb and hitch a ride with the next spaceship that's getting the hell out of Dodge.

So begins "Hitchhiker," the widely anticipated screen adaptation of the late Douglas Adams's loopily eccentric radio series/novel/play/computer game/TV miniseries/comic book of the same name. The screenplay was written by Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick ("Chicken Run"), and the film was directed by Garth Jennings. And as beginnings go, it's rip-roaring, spot-on, hoot-out-loud fun.

We were so busy hooting out loud and ripping and roaring that it took a minute for us to realize that, although "Hitchhiker" starts out a total gas, it doesn't have enough fuel to sustain the ride, ultimately amounting to little more than some amusing gags strung together in search of a story. Which is a bummer.

It has all the right ingredients: It has a charming cast, with Martin Freeman (star of BBC's "The Office") as the befuddled Arthur and rapper/renaissance man Mos Def as the quirky Ford. Also on board are a nearly unrecognizable Sam Rockwell ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") as the who's-your-daddyesque Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the galaxy; John Malkovich -- with hair -- as the oleaginous preacher Humma Kavula; the veddy proper Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin, the whiny, clinically depressed robot (who is actually played by Warwick Davis); and a winsome Zooey Deschanel as the adventure-loving Trillian, who finds out, much to her dismay, that space could be her permanent home, what with Earth being destroyed and all.

So it has all these fine actors doing some very fine acting (let's take a moment to worship at the altar of the outrageously gifted Mos Def), some really fun bits with an animated e-book ("The Guide," wonderfully voiced by an arch Stephen Fry, which advises readers, "DON'T PANIC!") and some hilarious riffs on the Infinite Improbability Drive coming into contact with, among other things, a ball of yarn. (The result: Yarn people! Okay, you really had to be there to get that bit . . . .)

It has all this good stuff, fun special effects, such as Zaphod's literal two-facedness, and the hideously ugly, villainous Vogons spouting really bad poetry. But what it doesn't have is a discernible plot. As Ford and Arthur careen through space, sneaking onto and getting kicked out of a series of spaceships, story lines are picked up, like the importance of a good bath towel or Kavula's quest for the point-of-view gun, only to be dropped with a quickness.

It's a little bit sci-fi, a little bit satire, a little bit philosophical, a lot anarchistic -- much like, we are told, its author, the British-born Adams, who worked for 20 years on the screenplay before dying of a heart attack in 2001. But coherent it's not. And that, for both Hitchhiker fans and Hitchhiker newbies, is a shame. Unless, that is, you've consumed massive quantities of Zaphod's Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster -- purportedly the best drink in the universe -- the effect of which leaves one feeling as though one's brain has been smashed by a slice of lemon wrapped around a giant gold brick. And then maybe you wouldn't mind the madness.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 and contains adult themes, cartoony violence and mild profanity.

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