Beware the movie that's Fun with a capital F, the one populated with seemingly unpretentious characters that say adorable, clever things, the one that presents each off-kilter joke as if it were a porcelain curio, the one that boasts a comfort-food soundtrack of songs you've always liked but perhaps haven't heard in a while. On the plus side, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, adapted from the Marvel comic book series of the same name, has a sense of humor about itself: Even when characters strut around dropping hefty expository bundles like "Ronan is destroying Xanderian outposts throughout the galaxy," they do so with a wink. But by the end, you'll have been winked at so much you may think you've been staring at a strobe light for nearly two hours. Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that a picture can have a sense of humor yet have no real wit. It hits every beat, but it hasn't got the beat.
You might be fooled into thinking otherwise at the beginning. Guardians opens with a flashback preamble detailing a key episode in the childhood of our hero, Peter Quill (played, as a youngster, by Wyatt Oleff): His mother, dying in a hospital, begs him to take her hand; he recoils, only to be filled with remorse seconds later when she draws her last breath. The totem he clings to is a mixtape of "Awesome Music" she's made for him, filled with rad-pop treasures from her own youth and maybe from yours, too, like the Raspberries' "Go All the Way" and 10cc's "I'm Not in Love." Cut to Quill as a brawny, space-roaming grownup, now played by Chris Pratt: He's still listening to that tape, and we see him, headphones clamped to his ears, swaggering through a dazzling, surreal, blue-green alien landscape — rife with obnoxious, scampering lizards, which he impatiently kicks out of the way — to the strains of Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love."
Fun! Right? Actually, that early sequence almost is fun, though it's just a little too self-aware, too pleased with itself, to work. Later, our rogue space scavenger is joined in his exploits by green-skinned butt-kicker Gamora (Zoe Saldana), beefcake-y, tattooed chrome-dome Drax (pro wrestler Dave Bautista), and an unlikely duo of soldiers of fortune: cranky talking raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his bark-covered sidekick, Groot (Vin Diesel), a thinking, feeling, ambulatory plant form with exceedingly sad, slightly watery eyes. Naturally, none of these characters like one another much at first. But they quickly realize that five heads and twelve legs are the bare minimum needed to keep the villainous, stripey-faced Ronan (Lee Pace) from destroying the galaxy. Also, at one point they'll have to take a meeting with Glenn Close in a winter-white pretzel hairdo, and that's seriously scary.
But what really kills the fun — as opposed to the Fun — of Guardians of the Galaxy is its desperate attempt to be casual and quirky and irreverent nearly every minute. Groot and Rocket are, admittedly, well designed: Rocket, with his expressively raggedy fur, comes off as a crotchety refugee from Fantastic Mr. Fox. And the perpetually sorrowful Groot, his arms and legs a tangle of art-nouveau roots, strikes the right balance between somber elegance and whimsy.
Otherwise, the movie works so hard to advertise its disreputability that it comes off as anything but.