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Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005
Thumbs down for this road to nowhere
Comedy, like winning elections or simultaneous orgasms, is all a matter of timing. You've got to hook your audience and get them laughing early, because laughter breeds more laughter. Do that, and you can get away with a lot, even a bunch of penguins hijacking a ship like in the excellent "Madagascar," which left audiences laughing long and hard at the screening this writer attended.
At the other end of the spectrum is something like "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," the long-awaited cinematic adaptation of novelist Douglas Adams' much loved sci-fi pisstake. The material has a quirky, uniquely British sense of the absurd, and director Garth Jennings -- yet another graduate of the school of music video -- needed to get people locked into the groove quickly.
The result? Absolute, utter failure. The opening sequence, which involves the Earth's higher intelligence dolphins fleeing the planet before it's destroyed by the bureaucratic Vogons to make way for an intergalactic highway, should have been a surefire thing. Jennings' delivery was flat, though, and barely a chuckle was heard before a sub-Monty Python silly song over the opening credits ("So Long and Thanks for All the Fish") deadened the cinema even more.
Bad jokes, like bad pick-up lines, don't just flop, they actually leave the recipient rather hostile to any more that come along.
By the halfway point of "Hitchhikers Guide," the audience had resentfully hardened their hearts to the point where not even a good joke -- like when a spacecraft engages its "Infinite Improbability Drive" and all its inhabitants turn into yarn puppets -- could win them back. It even seemed like Marvin, the depressed robot who was one of the series' most-loved characters, was hanging his head in shame.
Yes, I know there will be those of you out there -- fans of Adams' books or the radio series -- who will refuse to believe that any movie that remained relatively faithful to the source material could be this awful. Well, for the record, this critic read the book some two decades ago, but recalls laughing out loud at parts of it, something that didn't occur during the movie.
Perhaps the unexpectedness of the absurd humor is less effective when one knows what's coming. Maybe Adams' sprawling digressions couldn't be translated to the rigid constricts of a two-hour film, never mind the matter of capturing his tone. (Something the film attempts with the liberal use of word-for-word voice-overs by Stephen Fry.)
Possibly some of the humor -- especially that involving pre-Thatcher labor-union inefficiency and bureaucratic bungling -- feels dated. Certainly, the performances are underwhelming.
Martin Freeman plays Arthur Dent, the apparently sole human survivor of Earth's destruction, who hitches a ride across the galaxy, as a fairly bland nebbish who spends the whole film in his pajamas. Sam Rockwell does his best impersonation of Jason Lee in "Almost Famous" (the ranting singer of Stillwater) as Zaphod Beeblebrox, the intergalactic president with two heads. It's a performance that's as manic as it is unfunny, always a deadly combination. Zooey Deschamel gets to be the tepid love-interest Trillian, one of the least engaging revisions to Adams' original work.
Jennings is to be commended for not relying too heavily on computer graphics. The Vogons are essentially large puppets, while Marvin the Paranoid Android, with his round silver head and pot belly, looks computer generated but is actually piloted by one Warwick Davis (who, incidentally, played an Ewok in "Star Wars"). Some of the best gags involve a melding of the two, such as when planet-designer Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy) takes Arthur on a tour of his factory. It starts off like a cheapo haunted-mansion train-ride, with lame special effects a la vintage "Dr. Who," before hurtling through a door into a vast, eye-popping cosmos of CGI design.
Unfortunately, while director Jennings knows how to cut to beats -- in videos for Fatboy Slim, Blur and the like -- he has no idea how to cut to jokes, and line after line, gag after gag, are flatter than yesterday's Coke. All the visual effects in the world can't save you if you can't make a smack-in-the-face amusing.