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STARRING: Martin Freeman, Mos' Def, Zooey Deschanel, John Malkovich and various star cameos

DIRECTOR: Garth Jennings

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes


THE LOWDOWN: Earth is toast, so Arthur Dent and his friend Ford Prefect knock around the universe in search of comfort and an acceptable cup of tea.

Never mind the rest of the universe.
The big trouble with Man is that he was only the third-most-intelligent species on Earth. For instance, he never saw the Vogons coming. Not so the dolphins. They knew that the Vogons were on their drooling way to incinerate our weary planet, just to make room for an intergalactic freeway.

It seems, then, that while we arrogant humans were amused by captive dolphins dancing on their tails and singing their click-sound arias in various Sea Worlds, they were actually on their way out and sending us a departing message: "So long and thanks for all the fish."

We seem to get a lot of things wrong, actually. Take the mice, for instance. All this time, we thought that the mice were the subjects of our scientific experiments. It turns out that the mice and cheese were really experimenting on us.

We'd have known better, of course, if we'd boned up on "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," the fictional intergalactic guidebook featured in the wild movie of the same name that has, at long last, opened.

It is altogether wonderful, fresh and brilliant -- a kick.

But it's more than a little tiresome and annoying, too. In other words, the gags, whimsies, paradoxes and drolleries are festooned too richly throughout (which is a problem with the original books, too). The ratio of chocolate chips to cookie sometimes becomes dangerously out of whack. The movie, at brief moments, turns into pure nerd-humor goo.

See it anyway. It's an entirely brainy and new take on a genre that too often in movies depends on dimwit mythography.

Some history, first.

Douglas Adams was a Cambridge-educated scribbler and script editor for TV's "Dr. Who." In 1978, he concocted "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" as a series of half-hour BBC radio programs. It was as if H. G. Wells had melded with Lewis Carroll (who taught logic at Oxford). A cult was born. So, later, was a TV series, a book with three sequels, a record album, a computer game and, for all I know, a keyring and a lunch box.

But while he was alive (he died tragically of a heart attack at 49 while working out in a Santa Monica gym), Adams could never get his film script made.

Maybe it's not 100 percent kosher Adams in this form, but it's a real answer to a lot of concrete questions -- most notably where are the smart and creative movies coming from?

It's full of answers, actually -- 42, for instance. That, we're told, is the answer to the ultimate question about life and the universe. Unfortunately, since we don't know what the exact question is, the answer "42" isn't a lot of help.

Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), a "5-foot, 8-inch ape descendent" is one of the only two earthlings after the Vogons turn earth into cookie dust. That's because his best friend Ford Prefect (a delightful Mos' Def) was, unbeknownst to Dent, an extraterrestrial researcher for "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Ford saves Arthur at the last second and off they go into the universe in search of comfort and an acceptable cup of tea. Soon, they meet up with Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell and a morose robot named Marvin played by Alan Rickman.

The Hitchhiker's Guide, we're told, is an intergalactic bestseller, along with "Where God Went Wrong," "More of God's Greatest Mistakes," and "Who Is This God Person Anyway?"

It's the guide, though, that tells you how to survive. It also tells you about those who believe the universe was formed by a giant sneeze. At their worship service, their zealous minister Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) prays "Send a handkerchief blessed one and wipe us clean." Instead of saying "amen," the congregation says "achoo!" To which the minister replies, "Bless you."

The movie does a lot of that. It's often wildly visually inventive too and, when it isn't, it's deliberately funny (a rocket ride through the universe begins as a rickety, rackety amusement park funhouse ride).

A bit exhaustingly overloaded perhaps after its 20-year journey from radio to film but the trip was very much worth it.


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