Archive for March 2000

High Fidelity

March 31, 2000

Nick Hornby’s well-loved novel High Fidelity is set in London, while the film version unfolds in Chicago; other than that, the movie is aptly named — it’s a faithful adaptation right down to the debates about Top Five records. Reading the book, you can envision it without John Cusack; watching the film, you can’t imagine it without him. Cusack meets Hornby’s British self-consciousness with his own American brand, adding his Cusackian knack for romantic yearning. He plays guys that guys see themselves in and that women see their past or possible future boyfriends in, either fondly or hopefully.

Here he’s Rob Gordon, an embittered, thirtysomething owner of a failing record shop. Obsessively cataloguing his vast personal record collection, just as obsessively chewing over his past botched relationships, Rob is a descendant of the Daniel Stern character in Diner, who freaked out when his wife shelved his singles out of order. Rob is a big believer in pop music as both the soundtrack for love and the influence on notions of love, and the film’s selection of tunes — mostly beautifully morose songs — bears him out; even the uptempo numbers have names like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Cold Blooded Old Times.”

Rob has just been dumped by longtime girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle), a lawyer who’s grown past him and is tired of waiting for him to catch up. Rob seems to have a better rapport (though often hostile) with his cronies at the shop, the effusive Barry (Jack Black) and the recessive Dick (Todd Louiso), both music geeks who seem to represent two extremes that Rob falls in the middle of. He’s not quite as hardcore about music as they are; he’s slowly growing out of it, but towards what, he’s not sure yet. Still, he knows his tunes, as seen in one of many memorable scenes, when Rob spins a Beta Band disc in the shop and waits for the music to lure buyers.

While Rob tries haplessly to recapture Laura’s heart — part of which involves distracting her from pompous new flame Ian (old Cusack buddy Tim Robbins in a hilariously insufferable performance) — Rob flashes back on his past disasters, talking directly to us, as if we were friends sitting in on his anguish; this gives the movie a slightly voyeuristic feel. Stephen Frears, who also directed Cusack in The Grifters ten years ago (impossible to think that hard-bitten noir came right on the heels of the gentle Say Anything), expertly creates Rob’s cluttered milieu, a place where clarity gets lost in the nooks and crannies of disorganized apartments.

Cusack adapted the book with help from friends D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, as well as Scott Rosenberg. Though I’m not sure why it took four guys to transcribe a script almost verbatim from the novel, it’s nice to see the three musketeers Cusack, DeVincentis, and Pink together again after their 1997 triumph Grosse Pointe Blank. Their new film has a radically different tone and rhythm — it lacks GPB‘s dark edge, New Wave pulse, and rapid-fire exchange of quirky dialogue (“I’ll go put these in some rubbing alcohol,” said Minnie Driver when given flowers) — but it’s just as organically a Cusack film, with an accumulating gallery of pleasures.

Not to mention a rogue’s gallery of bright supporting performances. Jack Black, of HBO’s satirical show Tenacious D, grabs the movie as soon as he walks through the door; onscreen with the manic-depressive Cusack and the stammering Todd Louiso, he has more than enough wall space to bounce his noisy tirades off of. It must be said, also, that Rob has terrific taste in ex-girlfriends, who include Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor, both of whom make more vivid impressions in a minimum of screen time here than in the sad entirety of The Haunting. Unfortunately, Rob’s early rapport with Laura (though she’s smartly played by Iben Hjejle) is mainly hearsay; since most of the movie is post-breakup, we seldom see them enjoying each other’s rhythms, the way Cusack and Minnie Driver (or for that matter, Cusack and Ione Skye) did.

Rob’s connection with singer Marie de Salle (Lisa Bonet, giving a self-absorbed performance as a self-absorbed woman) is hardly better. Cusack and company have dropped the book’s denouement in which Marie performs at the record shop, and they were right to — it would have come off cheesy in a film. Still, it renders her character a little pointless. But it doesn’t seem to matter much: the movie is more about the longing for love than about actual relationships. At times, Rob seems to take a page from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: he’s looking for the next ex-girlfriend.

Cusack makes movies for and about disenchanted Gen-X guys; usually, the Cusack hero has to unlearn some false mantra of self-definition — in GPB it was “I don’t think what a person does necessarily reflects who he is,” and here it’s “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like.” High Fidelity follows the commitment-phobic Rob through his bumpy ride to some sort of contentment; the movie ends up saying nothing more remarkable than that the Robs of the world need a Laura to set them straight, but it feels right here, because what Rob yearns for is more than just a warm body in his bed. He needs meaning, structure, a reason to get up in the morning. There’s more to life than romance or pop music, but there’s no reason you can’t combine the two.


March 17, 2000

Now that Hilary Swank has won the Best Actress Oscar, perhaps it’ll be easier to get people to see the difficult but rewarding film she’s in. Swank’s compassionate and detailed performance as Brandon Teena, the real-life Nebraska woman (born Teena Brandon) who posed as a guy and paid a tragic price, is far from the only reason to see Boys Don’t Cry, which should not need Oscar validation in order to get attention. But this is America, where the average moviegoer balks at the relatively mild American Beauty because it isn’t the usual comforting Hollywood pablum. This nail-tough yet poetic work may still have an uphill climb to find an audience.

When we meet Brandon, it’s 1993 and he’s already aroused the wrath of local louts, who chase him away, calling him “faggot” — a word that reverberates with irony and ambiguity in this case. Brandon sees himself as a heterosexual male who happens to have been born with female equipment. The way he sees it — and the movie agrees — he is male, so it’s not as coy as it may seem to refer to him as “him.” Brandon’s very name carries an aura of ’50s teen-heartthrob angst – Brando and James Dean, both also sexually ambiguous. Director Kimberly Peirce, who wrote the script with Andy Bienen, treats Brandon partly as an iconic image of freedom — a sort of rebel without a penis — yet the movie also has an edge of bitter ’90s realism.

Brandon flees to another town, where he sets about getting into hot water all over again. He goes home with Candace (Alicia Goranson of Roseanne), a young mother and bar waitress, but is drawn to one of Candace’s friends — Lana (Chloe Sevigny), a brooding girl who hates the rural life but lacks the energy to get out. Lana’s backstory is as tangled as a soap opera: her mother’s boyfriend John (Peter Skargaard), an amiable ruffian whose mood can turn from jolly to vicious on a dime, isn’t much older than Lana is, and she hangs out with him and his buddy Tom (Brendan Sexton III), getting stoned and waiting for something. Brandon, it turns out, is the something she’s been waiting for.

We can’t miss the irony that Brandon treats Lana more gently and reverently than any man Lana has encountered before; the movie suggests that only a woman can truly understand another woman’s needs, and yet Brandon is in boy mode. At times he seems to contain both genders at once, shifting like sexual mercury. Swank’s nervous ardor in her scenes with Sevigny is first-rate and touching, and Sevigny, in the less showy role, gives a fully alert performance as an unconscious girl who blooms under Brandon’s affections. When the flighty, skinny guy and the sleepy, fleshy girl come together, genuine erotic sparks fly. Yet we understand, sadly, that part of the excitement comes from the danger involved.

Wisely, Peirce doesn’t sanctify Brandon. He was pretty screwed up, and made a parade of big mistakes trying to capture the life he wanted. Most sane people would agree that recklessness (downright foolishness, at times) shouldn’t be an offense punishable by rape and murder, but that’s how Brandon’s short story ends. The movie pulls us where we don’t really want to go — the moment of discovery, the violence and pain. But this is not so much a morality or cautionary tale as a dark fairy tale about a prince who died for love. You’re left with a disturbing raft of “ifs”: If Brandon had lived somewhere else; if Brandon had found a support group, cleaned up his act, gotten on the path to gender-reassignment surgery or whatever he needed; or simply if Brandon had made it out of Nebraska with Lana. But what then? Boys Don’t Cry is a fable about the fragility of love and freedom; it says that the most precious thing about both is that they can end in a heartbeat.

brandonteena01Those who come to the 1998 documentary The Brandon Teena Story after having seen Boys Don’t Cry may be a bit disappointed: Life, after all, is not as shapely as art. For those who want the unadorned facts, however, the documentary is worth a look. For one thing, we learn that Brandon’s girlfriend Lana was nowhere near the scene of the crime when it happened; Lana was also far from the only young woman Brandon romanced, though she does seem to have been his favorite. Also, Kimberly Peirce’s movie leaves out Philip DeVine, who was also murdered along with Brandon and Lisa Lambert (represented in the Peirce film by “Candace”). And as scurvy as the actors playing John Lotter and Thomas Nissen are made to look, they’re Leonardo DiCaprio and Freddie Prinze Jr. compared with their real-life counterparts, who appear on camera in the documentary, frighteningly closed off from ordinary human feeling.

Of the two, I prefer Boys Don’t Cry, if only because Peirce found the lyricism and romance in this story (before it went horribly wrong). The filmmakers here, Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, have only stark facts to work with. And much of The Brandon Teena Story feels padded out: Muska and Olafsdottir resort to many lingering shots of the Nebraska countryside, as well as sensationalistic or manipulative choices throughout (a trial account of the murders is played over photos of Brandon as a baby and a happy-looking teen, culminating in a brief and unnecessary glimpse of Brandon’s corpse). The filmmakers interview many of Brandon’s friends and family, along with the family of the murderers and their other victim Lisa Lambert (her father, and Brandon’s mother, are profoundly moving in their acknowledgment that Lotter’s death penalty can still never make things okay). Some of the people that Peirce’s movie didn’t have room for are especially interesting: John Lotter’s sister Michelle, a short-haired, deep-voiced, direct woman who’s more masculine than Brandon was; Brandon’s own sister, who looks more like Hilary Swank than Brandon did. The documentary seems split between those who refer to Brandon as “he” and those who don’t; he left behind a lot of confused, angry people — angry not necessarily because of what Brandon was, but because he lied to them. And their sadness at his death will always have that angry tarnish.

The strength of The Brandon Teena Story is that it briefly lets us hear Brandon speak for himself, on a recording made when he was making a rape complaint against Lotter and Nissen. Hearing his broken voice — broken in all senses of the word — your heart goes out to him (and you realize that Hilary Swank, re-enacting this moment, didn’t overplay Brandon’s numb misery). The weakness, as in any after-the-fact crime documentary, is that this often seems less like the Brandon Teena story than the John Lotter and Thomas Nissen story. Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir had access to the trials, and the movie is weighted in favor of how the murderers were proven guilty. (One grace note does come of this: transgendered writer Kate Bornstein standing outside the courthouse, faltering as she describes Thomas Nissen’s cold-blooded testimony.) Still, the documentary seconds what Peirce’s movie suggested: that Brandon, who at 21 still didn’t quite know himself, was and is unknowable — a void surrounded by deception of the most desperate and touching kind, deception that seeks to shape dreams into truth.

GG+Allin+IMG_0579-880x400I certainly wouldn’t make the mistake of drawing an elaborate parallel between Brandon Teena and GG Allin, the ferociously vomitous punk-rock icon at the center of Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies (a 1993 documentary now available on DVD). Brandon would have taken one look at the bloody, shit-smeared GG and run the other way, but GG might have looked at Brandon and seen a fundamental likeness. Both were outlaws and outcasts; both pushed their lives to extremes and pushed against a society that wouldn’t let them be what they wanted to be — though Brandon sought to assimilate, while GG was all about confrontation and alienation. Brandon wanted to be part of society, as a man; GG wanted no part of it, and preferred to be an animal.

Directed as an NYU student project by Todd Phillips (who went on to make the controversial Frat House and the summer teen comedy Road Trip), Hated chronicles some time in the public life of GG Allin and his band, the Murder Junkies, as they embark on a “tour” (thus violating GG’s parole). For much of the movie, Phillips adopts a neutral, deadpan stance towards GG that’s often scabrously funny. Watching GG’s antics — slashing himself with a razor, pounding himself in the head with a mike, beating up audience members and yanking women around by their hair, shoving a banana up his ass and tossing the chunks at an appalled NYU audience, rolling around in his own shit onstage — safely in your own home, you can enjoy the lowbrow apocalypse as surreal theater. His bandmates (including his brother Merle, who seems to have a little more on the ball than GG, but not much) explain to us that, of course, GG’s act is a statement on the violence in society and the lack of “sweetness” in the world. But watching some of GG’s fans, mostly drunk or stoned, and obviously hungry for a freak-out experience they can talk about later, you wonder whether anyone who listened to him actually got that message.

Apparently GG Allin wasn’t just a monster onstage — he lived the role constantly, though we have to take that on faith, since it’s always difficult to tell how documentary subjects behave when there’s no camera around. But what did it all amount to? Unlike the Sex Pistols, who roared into America on a wave of spit and left behind one great album, the Murder Junkies remain unknown to anyone outside, say, New York or the underground music scene (or those who see this film). Reportedly, GG put out some 20 albums since 1979, but do you know anyone who owns or has even heard one of them? GG failed to make any meaningful mark (he had promised to kill himself onstage on Halloween 1992, which might have secured him a spot in the margins of rock history), perhaps because, aside from his onstage terrorism, he and his band sounded like a dozen other gutter-rant, thrash-metal bands of the same period. Hated gives us a peek at the squalid outskirts of music, which is usually good for a few laughs (a surprisingly articulate GG fan named Unk is pretty funny, sometimes unintentionally) until it becomes depressing.

The DVD comes with 50 extra minutes of footage — GG and the band “practicing” before a “show,” the show itself (which lasts maybe two songs before it ends due to a combo of sound snafus and rapidly fleeing audience members), and GG and his cohorts roaming the seedy side of New York in search of heroin. Which, we’re told, is what killed him the very next day. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this: GG Allin, the furious punk animal who yearned to die onstage and live forever in music history, dying of something so mundane as an overdose — and alone. The extra footage is highly fast-forward-worthy, but if nothing else it shows you that GG probably wouldn’t have made his Halloween 1992 deadline anyway; it’s a wonder he didn’t die a lot sooner. Still, Hated by itself (it runs only 60 minutes) is an indelible, cathartic essay on the pure nature of rock. GG Allin may have had no talent aside from venomous sideshows, and it’s difficult to draw a line connecting him and Elvis, but for a short while he embodied the fear, loathing, and passion that true rock should be about.

Erin Brockovich

March 14, 2000

erinbrock2If you want mainstream Hollywood entertainment done right, you have to bring in an outsider. Sometimes, as when a maverick like Sam Raimi is unhappily married to a dud like For Love of the Game, the union produces a stillborn child; but sometimes a talented director brings the material up to his level. Steven Soderbergh, after over a decade of experimenting in various forms of independent film (sex, lies and videotape; The Underneath; Schizopolis; The Limey), has begun to dabble in the mainstream; his current marriage, to a major studio film with an A-list star, could have been enough to send him scurrying back to the art house.

The result here is not stillborn but a frisky, friendly child full of surprises. Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh’s comedy-drama starring Julia Roberts, is in outline a lot like several other films, particularly A Civil Action, as well as the sort of true-life empowerment story you see on Lifetime every six months or so. But this film moves with a light step, and it takes time not just to establish characters but to appreciatethem. You’re in the hands of a director who genuinely likes people. In tone, the movie is actually closer to gentle mid-period Jonathan Demme films (like Melvin and Howard or Citizens Band) than to a routine legal drama.

If Erin Brockovich didn’t actually exist (she does, and has a cameo in the movie as a waitress named Julia), some screenwriter would’ve had to invent her for Julia Roberts. As written by Susannah Grant (Ever After and 28 Days), Erin is brassy, determined, full of love for her three kids and wary of everyone else; the character is perfectly suited to Roberts’ strengths, and she plays Erin as a frazzled, ordinary woman with a knack for cutting to the point. No cutie-pie, Erin is a sharp, angular person — an irresistible force that doesn’t believe in immovable objects.

After managing to find work at a California law firm, Erin starts to discover odd things in routine real-estate files: medical records that don’t seem to belong there. She soon learns that a local plant, Pacific Gas & Electric, has been contaminating the water with chromium and has been trying to buy off the locals. With the initially grudging help of her boss, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), Erin digs deeper and tries to rally the townspeople in a lawsuit against the corporation.

In a way, Erin Brockovich is the distaff companion to Wonder Boys — a disorganized wreck finds meaning in an endeavor larger than him/herself. The filmmakers here, as in Wonder Boys, pay more attention to subtleties of character than to plot mechanics. The actors are given space to bloom. Aaron Eckhart, so reptilian in his other roles (In the Company of Men, etc.), turns in a relaxed, friendly performance as George, the scruffy biker who gets involved with Erin and looks after her kids because he genuinely likes them. Albert Finney, too, seems energized in his many scenes with Roberts. They make a great team, providing two laughs for the price of one: Erin says something outlandish, and then Ed stands there silently, unsure whether to scream or laugh, or both. Watching Albert Finney struggling to keep his composure is one of the quieter pleasures of the movie season.

Don’t mistake Erin Brockovich for a classic or a masterpiece. Like Soderbergh’s previous mainstream film Out of Sight, it’s simply an example of Hollywood entertainment done with finesse and compassion, the way it always should be but so often isn’t. Perhaps such a movie triumphs more because of what it doesn’t do than because of what it does (Erin Brockovich, for instance, contains not a single tedious courtroom scene). The movie isn’t really even about the lawsuit or about going after a corporation. It’s about a woman finding out what she was meant to do, and finding the community that needs her.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

March 10, 2000

The idiosyncratic director Jim Jarmusch spent some of the ’90s drifting into mainstream genres: his major films of that decade were, respectively, a Western and an urban gangster drama. Yet nobody could really think of 1996’s Dead Man and 2000’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai in those reductive terms. Jarmusch has developed a taste for iconic loners — men who find themselves drawn into violence, “writing poetry with blood,” to paraphrase the Native American sage Nobody from Dead Man. It’s probably no accident that both films, from their titles to their sadly resigned heroes, are preoccupied with mortality. Yet both are also, viewed together in context, two of the driest deadpan comedies ever made. With a straight face, Jarmusch places cherry bombs under the cliches of the genre, while seriously attending to the larger themes that the explosions open up.

On the surface, of course, Ghost Dog is simply one of the coolest movies to come down the pike in years. Stylistically, the film is smooth and immaculate: Robby Muller’s lush dark photography and the propulsive hip-hop soundtrack by the RZA mesh beautifully. When Forest Whitaker strolls down the street carrying his case full of weapons, it’s hard not to draw a direct line between his Ghost Dog and Toshiro Mifune (and every iconic figure, from Eastwood’s Man with No Name to El Mariachi, that Mifune and Kurosawa inspired). Yet Ghost Dog isn’t just a stoic hard-ass; he loves his pigeons, and he likes ice cream — there’s a wonderful shot of the imposing assassin sitting on a park bench nibbling a cone. A group of rappers nearby seem to be paying homage to him — everyone in the hood apparently knows and respects him — and there’s an odd little dog who shuffles over and stares at him. Jarmusch loves these obscure little touches; he likes working with a genuine man of mystery, an unknowable assassin who has taken the code of the samurai to heart (we never really find out why) and reminds himself daily that he must die.

Ghost Dog has pledged his life and services to a rather unremarkable master — Louie (John Tormey), a saggy Italian mobster who saved Ghost Dog’s life years ago. Ghost Dog carries out hits for Louie and his Mafia crew until a mishandled kill provokes the wrath of the top guys (Cliff Gorman, a 50-something gangster who loves Public Enemy, and Henry Silva, who never loses his skull-like scowl even when watching cartoons). So the mob puts out a hit on Ghost Dog — he’s too weird anyway, too much of a loose cannon, even though he has performed twelve “perfect hits.”

This is what Jarmusch offers by way of a plot. But Ghost Dog is more about mood and moments — the tenderness that develops between Ghost Dog and a bookworm little girl in the park (Camille Winbush); the unlikely but strangely touching friendship of Ghost Dog and an immigrant who drives an ice cream truck (Isaach De Bankolé), who don’t even speak the same language; the way Ghost Dog makes car theft look as easy as operating a cell phone (he always picks fancy cars with kick-ass stereo systems); the dedication with which he practices with a sword we never see him use; the sight of Mafia guys in their sixties wheezing up a flight of stairs to whack Ghost Dog (this particular crew seems to include nobody under, say, 55); Forest Whitaker’s sad, eloquently still features, which are brightened by a warm smile more often than you expect — Jarmusch could not have picked a more soulful actor to play this samurai who seems to belong to no particular century.

Greil Marcus, writing for Salon’s online magazine not long ago, worked up a list of top ten reasons why Dead Man was the ideal movie for the end of the century; he and I are probably the only ones who enjoyed that film, with its soporific pace occasionally shattered by repulsive violence (who can forget Lance Henriksen crushing a man’s head under his heavy boot?). Dead Man was a slow, meditative essay on the brutality of Western “civilization”; Ghost Dog is a less leisurely paced second chapter. Ghost Dog, like all the heroic mass murderers before him, takes no pleasure in his prowess or his killing; it’s just his duty. The movie’s tongue-in-cheek treatment of racial relations is probably more sophisticated than anything in Romeo Must Die, which seems thrown together to please all sections of the urban market. Its brooding on life and death, and the gray area in between, is more probing than anything in The Matrix, and it doesn’t need kicky Oscar-winning special effects, either. Like Run Lola Run, Ghost Dog is a cool art-house artifact — deceptively simple eye candy that invites analysis and defies classification. 5

The Ninth Gate

March 10, 2000

Bookish types (no pun intended) may get a charge out of the early scenes in The Ninth Gate, the lumbering new thriller directed by Roman Polanski. The camera lingers over centuries-old volumes, their leatherbound bodies shining with perfection, their pages turning with a soft, soothing ruffle. Polanski, who understands obsession better than just about any living director aside from Martin Scorsese, makes us feel the passion of collectors who not only love but fetishize rare old books. The movie begins with Polanski’s usual mood of voluptuous menace, promising an elegant headgame for people who still read; the mood remains — Polanski’s craft is impeccable — but the story lets him down.

One collector in particular, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), has made it his life’s work to collect first editions of all books having to do with Satan; collectors of anything will have no trouble relating to his fixation on The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, the final volume he has acquired to complete his collection. Now he wants book expert Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) to find the other two existing copies of the book, ostensibly to authenticate them. Corso, played by Depp as a cynical brooder with slippery morals, agrees to the quest in exchange for a fat paycheck. The movie itself soon feels as if Polanski had done the same thing.

Corso hops from country to country, which always feels like the same European wherever, in search of the volumes, whose owners all seem destined for undignified deaths. One’s anticipatory mood may sour when one realizes that The Ninth Gate is essentially just a ponderous supernatural whodunit, without the freaky twists of an Angel Heart or a Sixth Sense. Polanski seems caught between the commercial (people get knocked off right on cue) and the uncommercial (it’s about books, for God’s sake), between the art house and the multiplex, between the sublime and the ridiculous. In this case, the ridiculous wins out more often than not.

Once Corso is on the road, away from his usual practice, the movie loses a lot of its unique strangeness. The idea of a collector who only buys books about Satan is intriguing; I was interested in the few glimpses we get of Corso’s wheeling and dealing, when he snags a four-volume Don Quixote for a relative pittance and brings them back to a book-dealer associate (James Russo, underused here). When Polanski abandons this backdrop for the conventional thriller stuff, it’s a bummer. And the presence of Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner as the mysterious, ass-kicking woman who joins Corso (she’s like Lara Croft thrown into the middle of Angel Heart) just makes the movie feel like a creepier version of Polanski’s Frantic (also starring Seigner). She seems to have the ability to levitate, and she has a fairly embarrassing topless scene in front of a fiery apocalypse. Yes, Roman, we’ve already seen why you married her. We didn’t need further proof.

One other interesting aspect of The Ninth Gate is the three volumes themselves, which vary slightly; the variations are a key to something, which turns out to be standard supernatural mumbo-jumbo. The ending seems like about three climaxes leading up to a big anticlimax. It’s one thing to leave a story unresolved for purposes of artistic ambiguity, but The Ninth Gate has all the earmarks of a director who has no idea how to end his movie (a problem he usually hasn’t had before). I won’t reveal anything — though if you missed it opening weekend, what’s the likelihood you’re ever going to see it anyway? — but I expected the Boris Balkan character to have more prominence, more power, than he does.

The movie could have used a whole lot more of Frank Langella, who is aging to resemble fellow Dracula Christopher Lee and is rapidly becoming just as lovably hammy. A movie about Boris Balkan, a lonely man whose extensive collection of Satanic literature keeps him warm at night, would have been a good character study for Polanski to tackle. But this movie is about a colorless guy (Depp plays him professionally but indifferently) who wanders around ritzy private libraries and keeps finding dead people. A seedy loner pursuing a mystery while up against corrupt rich people and Satan: sounds like a good story for the director of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. Too bad there’s little of that director in evidence here.

What Planet Are You From?

March 3, 2000

Is there an unlikelier movie star than Garry Shandling? His wincing, sour-faced style worked in small doses on TV — especially on The Larry Sanders Show, where he was meant to be dislikable and self-absorbed. In What Planet Are You From?, playing an alien from an all-male race sent to Earth to impregnate a woman (are you laughing yet?), Shandling sends out creepy vibes even when he’s supposed to be developing human feelings. He’s credible in his early scenes, when he’s hitting on every woman he sees, but this isn’t the kind of rambunctious sex comedy that finds humor in horny desperation. No, the alien must be redeemed by love.

Assuming the identity of Harold Anderson, a hotshot banker, the alien settles down in Arizona and begins his quest. A slimy coworker (Greg Kinnear) brings Harold to an AA meeting — a good place to meet fragile babes, says Kinnear — and Harold meets Susan (Annette Bening), who’s trying to get her life back together. He wants a baby pronto; conveniently, so does she. After two days, they get married and have nonstop, 21-hour honeymoon sex, heightened by Harold’s technologically advanced penis. Did I mention his penis hums when he’s aroused? It’s supposedly incredibly funny. The filmmakers apparently thought so, since the gag is repeated again and again, and yet, mysteriously, does not become one bit funnier.

Noticing the participation of Shandling, whose Larry Sanders was spiked with sharp insider wit, and director Mike Nichols, who had an intelligent triumph just two years ago with Primary Colors, you might expect What Planet Are You From? to be a frisky sexual satire freshened with blasts of candor. But the film’s targets are completely banal. Women are demanding and over-emotional; men will never figure them out. Men are closed-off and obsessed with the TV remote when they’re not horny; women will never figure them out. The movie offers not one shred of insight, comic or otherwise, into the eternal conflict between the sexes. It took Shandling and three other guys to write a script this loaded with sitcom clichés.

To pad things out, the writers introduce an airline investigator (John Goodman) who’s hot on Harold’s trail — for reasons unexplained, Harold uses airplane lavatories as meeting points when conferring with his alien boss (Ben Kingsley, looking vaguely disgusted). Goodman’s impatient body language while waiting for an elderly lady to give him some urgently needed info provided my sole, lonely laugh in the entire 105 minutes. But essentially he’s thrown away here, and the many interesting women onscreen (Bening, Nora Dunn, Camryn Manheim, Caroline Aaron, Janeane Garofalo, Stacey Travis, and particularly poor Linda Fiorentino, failing to hide her contempt for the script) are likewise wasted.

About halfway through, I asked myself why What Planet Are You From? is set in Arizona, of all places. Partly, I suppose, it’s because of its proximity to Roswell, the alien capital of the world. But an ugly suspicion presents itself: can it be that Shandling, Nichols, and their urbane cowriters feel that everyone in Arizona (which, after all, is not New York) is just too stupid to notice Harold’s alien-ness? What planet are these guys from? Mike Nichols seems too smart to resort to humming-penis gags and tired visual innuendo involving gushing fountains during the honeymoon marathon. Maybe aliens stole his brain? Unless they’ve stolen yours, you’re likely to feel as insulted and demoralized by the movie as I did.