Radical atheist and devout science geek Douglas Adams died of a heart attack at the ridiculously early age of 49 in May 2001. He thus missed ringside seats at the advent of blockbuster Islamofascism and the modern Crusades, born-again science junking, the passions of the Wojtyla and the Schiavo—the most infuriatingly inspirational epoch imaginable for the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a tour of the cosmos wherein God “vanishes in a puff of logic” during chapter 6. A BBC radio play turned novel and television series, H2G2 celebrates the felicities of chance and mutation, confronting the mysteries of Life, the Universe, and Everything with discursive absurdism, improvisatory castle building, and off-the-cuff erudition that suggests Monty Python hijacking the Starship Enterprise, ardent base of former and actual fanboys included.
Studiously harmless, Disney’s long-in-development film rendition pasteurizes the book’s renegade verve with typical means: special effects and gooey romance. (Adams had recently completed a second draft of the screenplay at the time of his death.) Pinballing around the universe with rumpled Englishman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, a/k/a Tim from The Office), the movie is amiable and eager to please, but its puppyish energies still rack up Hollywood overkill. (Just take the overture, which turns on a quintessentially Adams-esque joke about the generous intelligence of dolphins, and then clubs the punchline to death with an aggro-operetta theme song.) Befuddled in his bathrobe, last surviving Earth man Arthur is raptured off his home planet by best pal Ford Prefect (Mos Def) just before the galactic planning council vaporizes Earth with a whumpf. Their titular trusty handbook updated to Macromedia Flash, they hitch a ride aboard the Heart of Gold spaceship with Arthur’s female counterpart, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), and galaxy president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), a dim yet groovy playboy with a surfer dude’s cadences, a Texas oilman’s charm, and a retractable, id-like second noggin where his neck should be. His auxiliary brain’s Tourette’s-strength outbursts wear out their welcome almost immediately, so it’s a relief when cult leader Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) takes the head hostage.
Befitting an adventure largely propelled by a mechanism called the Infinite Improbability Drive, which can and does turn a nuclear missile into a bowl of petunias, H2G2 proceeds like a hit-or-miss series of interconnected Python-style skits. But Hollywood is always a stickler for the narrative arc and here pours on the treacle-thick glue of the thwarted love interest, though Arthur’s sad-sack pinings for Trillian are altogether less compelling than his galaxy quest for a nice cup of tea. (The end point of his search, in fact, earns the deepest laugh.) The hallucinogenic random variable is the film’s best friend, as when Arthur finds opportunity to deadpan, “Ford, I think I’m a sofa,” or the whole crew transforms into stop-motion yarn creatures, occasioning a strangely beautiful flourish of yarn vomit.
Though their performances are inevitably drowned out by the flurry of incident and CGI, Def and Rockwell both prove themselves splendid physical comics, wittily embodying straight-A students of earthling behavior, whether Ford is giving freaked-out Arthur an overdetermined pat on the shoulder or Zaphod is mechanically flashing his tickled-ivories smile. The latter vagabond is cut from Dubyan cloth, dispensing glib apologia such as “You can’t be president with a whole brain” and “I’m president of the galaxy; I don’t get a lot of time for reading.” Unfortunately, despite its merrily subversive pedigree, that’s as audacious as the movie gets: daring to depict the leader of the known universe as a big dumb jerk.