A thumbs down for 'Hitchhiker'

According to a recent theory, pop-culture entertainment isn't as bad for our brains as was previously thought. Current television shows crammed with lots of characters and subplots, for instance, might give our minds far better workouts than their predecessors did.

While this notion has merits and demerits, in my view, it would be hard to prove at the movies these days. Think what you will of arguments that "The Matrix" and "Memento" make profound philosophical statements; but you must admit that most high-profit multiplex fare is about as deep as the layer of topping on your popcorn.

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is a case in point. Taking its cue from Douglas Adams's novel, radio program, and TV adaptation, it centers on an ordinary man (Martin Freeman) who's whisked to safety by an interstellar friend just before Earth is destroyed by aliens who need room for their new hyperspace highway.

The picture takes on big issues - is the meaning of life big enough for you? - and its plot scoots through much of the known universe. The special effects are practically nonstop, and the Anglo-American cast includes such talented stars as Sam Rockwell and Alan Rickman.

All that's missing is ... a point! Given the whole cosmos to work with, plus all of Hollywood's high-tech trickery, first-time director Garth Jennings and his collaborators have come up with nothing but a superficial sci-fi romp poking mild fun at human foibles. Add satirical allusions to fantasy classics - from "Star Wars" to "Star Trek" - and you still have little more than a forgettable farce.

The movie has intermittent sparks of life, especially when Zooey Deschanel and Mos Def are on hand as the hero's love interest and best friend, respectively. There's also a marvelous cameo by John Malkovich as a cult leader as weird as the "religion" he promotes.

Not everyone manages to wring real humor from the lackadaisical material, though, and one of the dullest performances is by Freeman. Amiably bland actors can be fun to watch, as Tom Hanks has proved. Freeman is no Hanks, though, and "The Hitchhiker's Guide" won't boost anyone's career into hyperspace. Or give your mind a workout.

Rated PG; contains mild violence.

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