What Planet Are You From?

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.

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