Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


I had no sooner ended my stay with the Trappists than Madame Rose, my publicist called, to tell me about a fabulous entertainment opportunity involving a hospice benefit somewhere in Florida. As my public profile has been a little lower than I would like of late, I wasted no time in catching a Delta flight down to Miami and soon was being chauffeured up to some little town with a name like Pine Park. I've always felt that it was my duty, as a public figure, to appear at these charitable affairs, especially if they are well covered by the media and, as we sped into town, I could see that there were television trucks everywhere.

On my arrival, I found that things were just a tad disorganized, no proper stage management and most of the acts appeared to be performing on the front lawn. After dodging a crowd of people with bullhorns, someone thanked me for being there and suggested that I simply perform for the television cameras as a sort of freeform performance art. Off I went, but every time I would start my routine for a camera, this group of not terribly good acrobats, 'Jugglers for Jesus', got in the way. I ended up doing an extended tap routine on the top of a CNN van. Someone later told me that the whole show was produced by a Terri Schiavo. I kind of like the idea of being a Terri Schiavo dancer and wonder if there might be a future in a troupe of that name.

After the benefit ended, I returned home to Chateau Maine and Normy where we've been fairly sedate over the last few weeks while we evaluate our options for our next entertainment venture. We have ventured out to the cinema, a time or two, most recently to the new film version of Douglas Adam's cult novel, The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy. This property has been in development hell in Hollywood for more than twenty years, lumbering on through studio corridors even past the death of Adams, several years ago. At one point, with a much earlier draft of the script, I was attached to the project as Marvin, who in that conception, communicated through a clever series of tap combinations that came out as Morse code. The financing failed to materialize, however, and I moved on to other projects.

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy came to life originally as a BBC radio series, morphed its way into a series of novels, was adapted for British television, recorded and became an early computer game, heavily influencing the late boomers and early generation X who came of age in the late 70s and early 80s. Douglas Adams, author and humorist, remained the guiding force behind the entire empire until his death. He retains a screenplay credit for the current film, although the material was apparently reworked by Karcy Kirkpatrick. I wish I could say that the film was worth the long wait, but sadly, it is, at best a pedestrian effort, which could have benefitted a little from Douglas Adam's comic genius.

The story, taking elements from all five books in the 'Hitch Hiker' trilogy (don't ask), is a bit of a classic road movie. Everyman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) wakes up one morning to find his house is being demolished to make way for an expressway bypass. This turns out not to be such a big problem as the Vogons, a lumbering race of bureaucratic bad poets, have scheduled the earth for demolition for an interstellar bypass. Arthur escapes with his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), a being from somewhere around Betelgeuse who has been masquerading as human, by hitching a ride on a Vogon ship. Here Ford gives him a copy of the titular guide, which is dramatized by cute little animated graphics and the reassuring voice of Stephen Fry, as Arthur tries to cope with the strange new world he finds himself in.

Ford and Arthur are eventually ejected by the Vogons and end up on the spaceship 'Heart of Gold', fired by an improbability drive, along with Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the galaxy (Sam Rockwell in overdrive), the curvaceous Trillian, an earth adventuress whom Arthur admires (Zooey Deschanel) and a dysphoric robot named Marvin (body by Warwick Davis, voice by Alan Rickman). Soon this quintet is zooming around the galaxy, meeting some of the wackier denizens, and running away from bad tempered Vogons and galactic powers that be. They end up dealing with planetary construction, bored super computers, nasal religions and overly intelligent white mice, amongst other crises.

While this little synopsis suggests that this film would be a good natured romp, it can be, at times, somewhat painful to sit through. For every sequence of witty non-sequitur humor, the hallmark of the novels, there are moments of twee sentiment, or references that will be completely non-understandable to those who have not read the source material. It starts promisingly enough with a musical production number starring the dolphin population of the world, loses some steam in exposition, and eventually ends up all over the place.

The actors are game for the challenges. Mos Def and Zooey Deschanel, in particular, seem to understand the need to take the material absolutely seriously in order for the humor to shine through, no matter how absurd the situation. Martin Freeman, in the protagonist role, is fine, but spends most of the film befuddled by the craziness of the others and never gets to develop much as a character in himself. The big weakness is Sam Rockwell. Mr. Rockwell is a fine actor, but his Zaphod, played as a rock star on steroids, is so over the top that he becomes irritating in a matter of minutes, Even when his second head is revealed, all it does is make him doubly irritating. Director Garth Jennings seems not to know how to rein him in or that sometimes less is more. Jennings, with a background in music video, handles his camera well, but there's nothing especially compelling or interesting in the visuals and the film develops no sense of its own style.

The film is perfectly innocuous as an entertainment, but could have been so much more. If Douglas Adams had survived to supervise, some of the more obvious problems might have been fixed; or the film might simply have languished in development limbo for another dozen years.

Dolphin choreography. Six pints ale. House destruction. Earth destruction. Poetry reading. Bad tea. Yarn vomit. Legless John Malkovich. Giant computer. Face slapping. Monster feeding. Planetary construction. Emergency towel.

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