Mos Def and Martin Freeman in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyTHE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is something unusual: a movie wherein everyone involved appears to be having a good time. Of course, you could say the same about Cannonball Run or Ocean's Twelve, but the difference here is that the audience is allowed to have a good time, too. Based on Douglas Adams' cheeky, beloved sci-fi novel, Hitchhiker's Guide, which has been in various stages of film development for the better part of two decades, is a goofy, oftentimes glorious mess of a movie. If George Lucas and the Monty Python troupe ever spawned, the results would look something like this; I started smiling during the film's opening credits and only stopped to occasionally laugh out loud.

We first meet our hero, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), on a particularly miserable morning: He recently struck out with the woman of his dreams (Zooey Deschanel), a highway-construction crew is readying to demolish his house, and, oh yeah, he learns that his best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def), is an alien, and that the Earth will be destroyed that very day. And that's pretty much where all semblance of a plotline ends. Because once Ford whisks Martin to the relative safety of outer space - insomuch as nothing is blowing up out there - Hitchhiker's Guide turns into a madcap free-for-all of sci-fi conceits, random jokes, and nutty character turns. The film displays a ticklish sense of humor and an unforced joviality, and it's actually at its best when everything about it seems to go completely haywire; dolphins fly to the heavens (singing all the way), a whale falls from the sky, characters turn into puppets made of yarn, and John Malkovich shows up minus his lower torso. That's entertainment.

Gareth Jennings directs the proceedings like Terry Gilliam without the bombast. Hitchhiker's Guide has a lightness of spirit that shines through the intentionally cheesy design and effects, and though the movie retains Douglas Adams' comic vision - the author, who passed away in 2001, is listed (with Karey Kirkpatrick) as a co-screenwriter - the visual trickery and many of the more inspired images are all Jennings. Also, when this wonderfully eccentric cult phenomenon began in 1978, Adams couldn't have guessed that his novel's characters would be fleshed out by such wonderfully eccentric performers. Freeman, the sweetest sad sack from the BBC version of The Office, uses his unflappable deadpan to loveable effect, Mos Def swallows his throwaway lines and, as a result, manages to make them even funnier, Deschanel stares at this outré universe with wide eyes and a cat-who-ate-the-canary grin (any movie that casts her as its ingénue is guaranteed to be at least a little deranged), and Sam Rockwell, who plays the President of the Galaxy with two heads, three arms, and a George Dubya accent, is a lunatic clown - Dana Carvey on the Method. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is aimless, and it meanders a bit, yet it's terrifically entertaining and never less than inventive, and I'm betting it'll turn out to be a lot more fun than most of the overpriced blockbusters heading our way over the next four months.


Regina Hall and Anthony Anderson in King's RansomKING'S RANSOM

If you find your ears ringing ceaselessly during the first 15 minutes of King's Ransom, that's probably just the sound of the movie's thudding exposition taking its toll on your brain. Nearly everything about this kidnapping farce is painfully inept - the editing, in particular, is a shambles, as characters' facial expressions and body positions change from shot to shot; the effect is like whiplash on the eyes. But it's been a long while since I've endured a movie in which characters reveal information in the manner of: "Mr. King, I know you're a powerful businessman, and you're in the middle of a divorce, and you're trying to close this business deal for $25 million, but ... ."

Though the screenplay is credited to one Wayne Conley, I'm not sure if a room full of orangutans with PCs could have delivered a lousier script. From Jay Mohr's humiliating mugging to Regina Hall's wretched attempt at a bimbo to the typically revolting sounds of Jackie Burroughs braying with nicotine-laced disgust, no one emerges from King's Ransom with dignity intact; even lead Anthony Anderson, who's usually of great cheer, looks miserable. The only grin I got from the movie was when a trio of would-be kidnappers donned masks resembling Colin Powell, Jesse Jackson, and Condoleeza Rice, but you'll have to provide your own punchline to the gag; it's typical of King's Ransom that the movie takes its one moderately clever idea and does absolutely nothing clever with it.


Amanda Peet and Ashton Kutcher in A Lot Like LoveA LOT LIKE LOVE

In A Lot Like Love, which takes place over the span of seven years, the characters played by Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet are constantly being dumped by their significant others, yet no one comments on the fact that maybe there's a good reason for that. The movie aims to be When Harry Met Sally ... for the Punk'd generation, with Kutcher's Oliver and Peet's Emily always coming this close to being a couple without ever really getting there, and it's never out-and-out terrible. Even though the movie steals liberally from nearly every romantic comedy released over the past two decades - Oliver even has a deaf brother who signs him sage romantic advice, just like in Four Weddings and a Funeral - it has an intriguing structure and is more serious than we probably had any right to expect; it's passable enough. But, in the end, A Lot Like Love is a bummer of a romantic comedy, because no one onscreen seems to recognize that both of its leads are colossal pains in the ass.

Like many, I've had it up to here with Ashton Kutcher - I haven't even summoned the energy to see Guess Who yet - but the fact that his character is such a wishy-washy drip isn't entirely his fault, nor is it the fault of the talented Amanda Peet that Emily is such a whirligig of "zany" tics that her role never begins to make sense. What is their fault is their total lack of anything resembling romantic chemistry - Peet has far more going on, in two scenes, with the grave Jeremy Sisto, and the playful badinage between Kutcher and Harold & Kumar's Kal Penn, as Oliver's business partner, makes you wish the movie had gone on a different romantic tangent altogether - and their forced, look-how-cute-I-am posturing. They're not playing characters; they're playing character traits, and annoying ones at that. Moreover, they're just about the only characters onscreen for most of Love's running length; the movie is almost perverse in its waste of supporting talent. (In addition to the barely used Sisto and Penn, Kathryn Hahn, Taryn Manning, and the great Amy Aquino are squandered.) Not all movies have to feature likeable protagonists, of course, but in a romantic comedy, shouldn't that be a prerequisite?

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