Ape descendant Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) gets yanked from the Earth by best friend and alien Ford Prefect (Mos Def) seconds before a Vogon constructor fleet destroys it to make way for a hyperspace expressway. Next thing he knows Arthur is aboard the Vogon ship reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (voiced by Stephen Fry) and wondering where he might get some tea. But he and Ford are not in the clear: the Vogons (some of whom look like the nightmarish drawings of Ralph Steadman come to life in S&M leather) want to throw them into the vacuum of space right after they read some of the third worst poetry in the known universe. Luckily the spaceship Heart of Gold picks up the stranded hitchhikers in the nick of time. Stolen by the dim but groovy President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) the ship has an Improbability Drive that causes certain mischief turning the stowaways into loveseats and later two missiles into a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale. Also onboard is doe-eyed Earth girl Tricia "Trillian" McMillan (Zooey Deschanel) who previously ditched Arthur at a costume party on Earth to satisfy her wanderlust with Zaphod. The crew then embarks on a quest to find the Ultimate Question to Life the Universe and Everything after supercomputer Deep Thought (voiced by Helen Mirren) found the answer: 42. On the run and without a home Arthur discovers that life's true meaning comes from the answers found within.
The slapstick antics and sharp dialogue evoke enough laughs to make one forget that the characters are rather one-note. Rockwell's Zaphod is a riot at first but the cheeky smile and devilish winks soon wear thin. Deschanel has little to work with playing Trillian though it's fun watching her wield a point-of-view gun on Zaphod. Mos Def mumbles some lines but does manage to act like someone from another planet. Freeman does an amiable job playing the fish-out-of-water Earthman but neglects to express the grief and bewilderment of someone who just lost his planet. Even John Malkovich as Humma Kavular--the spiritual leader of a cult awaiting the arrival of the Big Handkerchief--fails to make much of an impression in his brief appearance. Only Alan Rickman as the perpetually glum robot Marvin and Bill Nighy as the stammering planet designer Slartibartfast remain funny without becoming routine--though unfortunately Nighy only appears in the third act. A half-cocked romance between Arthur and Trillian is thrown in for good measure with the couple merely going through the motions.
Directed with considerable flair by first-timer Garth Jennings whose frantic visual style blends well with Adams' ironic wit the film looks as good as can be. CGI is used to display Adams' universe in ways never seen before: The massive concrete slabs of the Vogon fleet surrounding Earth the Heart of Gold tricked out in 1960's Formica kitsch the stark bureaucratic world of Vogosphere and the eye-popping factory floor on Magrathea are all vividly brought to life. Although the graphics of the Guide look more like Internet pop-up ads than stellar entries from the best-selling book in the galaxy the exposition from the Guide is clever and amusing though one should brush up on the material prior to viewing. Even with all the stunning visuals however the plot is still thin. Jennings and screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) have trimmed the story--and witty banter--to its barest essentials leaving out some of the funnier bits to quicken the pace. Memorable exchanges--like the opening battle of wits between Arthur and Mr. Prosser--are reduced to a few meaningless lines while the always hinted-at love affair between Arthur and Trillian gets the full Hollywood treatment. In the past Adams who died of a heart attack in 2001 has allowed the Guide to change and progress with each incarnation so new additions--like the point-of-view gun and the cult of the Big Handkerchief--are welcomed. But the patchwork of wacky vignettes and neutered banter particularly between Arthur and Ford leave one yearning for something more meaningful.
Although the film's title suggests there might be some deeply relevant British national allegory in the film post-colonialist comedy fans shouldn't get their hopes up. The plot of Johnny English such as it is goes something like this: The title character a bumbling junior-level spy (Rowan Atkinson) is suddenly thrust into active duty when every other agent in the British Secret Service is blown to smithereens during a bombing at a fellow agent's funeral. When the Crown Jewels are stolen it's up to English to discover the culprit and in the process he unearths a plot to replace the Queen of England with a French entrepreneur who has some pretty nasty real estate development plans for Merry Olde Blighty. It's a sorry excuse for a story sure but such paltry fare as plot character development and dialogue don't matter much when you connect the bits with U.K. fave Atkinson hamming it up in his trademark blundering way. And he really is funny in this movie--maybe not pee-your-pants funny but certainly hoot-out-loud funny. As with any spy spoof some of the shtick works and some doesn't but on the whole Atkinson and Co. do a good job in spite of the contrived script and pithy lines writers Neal Purvis Robert Wade and William Davies have pieced together for them.
If Cervantes' Don Quixote were a modern-day spy this would be his story. Atkinson tilts at Johnny English's windmills with the vigor and extravagance fans of the comedian's trademarked physical comedy have come to expect. Whether he's crashing a funeral pantomiming to ABBA in front of his bathroom mirror invading a hospital with guns blazing or getting his tie caught in a sushi bar conveyor belt Atkinson gives this movie's hackneyed scenes personality they probably wouldn't have had in any other actor's hands. Comedian and fellow Brit Ben Miller takes his first strokes across the pond as English's sidekick Bough playing Sancho Panza to Atkinson's Quixote to fairly good effect. The real "straight man" in this farce however is Natalie Imbruglia as love interest Lorna Campbell. The girl can't act her way out of a paper bag but when you look the way she does in leather pants and stilettos talent is beside the point. John Malkovich is underutilized as the villain Pascal Sauvage whose anti-English (that's the nation not the spy) sentiments have driven him to lay claim to the throne of England which he plans to use for nefarious purposes.
Based as it is on a character Atkinson created for a TV commercial for a major British credit card it's not surprising that the characters in Johnny English are far more entertaining when they're improvising 60-second physical comedy scenes than when they're attempting to further the so-called plot. What is surprising is that such pedigreed moviemakers as director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors) production company Working Title Films (producers of Elizabeth Fargo and Billy Elliot) and producer Mark Huffam (The Hours) are attached to such a silly film. Then again everybody needs to let loose sometime; maybe this is their idea of a vacation.