Friday March 3, 2000
"What Planet Are You From?" is a question this Mike Nichols-directed hybrid ought to be asking itself. Part alien sex comedy, part fake-sensitive look at human relationships, its diverse parts come at you out of everywhere all at once. Imagine "Mork and Mindy" meets "The Love Boat" with a bit of "The Omen" and a lot of the randyness of burlesque humor thrown in. A disconcerting combination, to say the least.
"Planet's" idea came from star Garry Shandling, who also co-wrote the script and served as one of the film's producers. The force behind HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," Shandling presumably wanted this to be funny but also confesses to having had "personal issues" he was eager to explore. But neither Shandling nor the trio of credited writers (Michael Leeson, Ed Solomon, Peter Tolan) who worked with him were able to consistently bring both sides of that equation to life. The result is a film that is sporadically funny, often strange and almost never poignant.
The film begins "at the far reaches of the universe," on a nameless planet four solar systems away in distance and a thousand years more advanced than Earth in technology. It's a planet inhabited only by men who've (no surprise) eliminated emotions and reproduce themselves by cloning. In the process their sexual organs, not to put too fine a point on it, first shrunk and then completely disappeared.
Now, however, Graydon (Ben Kingsley), the planet's leader, has a plan to rule the universe that makes those lost organs necessary. One of his subjects will be selected to go to Earth and father a child with one of the planet's women, facilitating an eventual "Body Snatchers"-type insider's takeover.
Before a volunteer is chosen, training has to take place, and legions of identically dressed men somberly learn puzzling techniques ("She will enjoy being told her footwear is stylish") for putting women into "receptive moods." The lucky candidate is H1449-6 (Shandling), hereafter known as Harold Anderson, outfitted with a new sexual organ and selected for his adaptability to "unpredictable" Earth women.
Once Anderson's in country as a Phoenix bank loan officer, however, it turns out that all that training has turned him into a smug and obnoxious lounge lizard, a "humongous sleazebag" whose one-track mind irritates and flummoxes more women than it attracts.
Also getting in Anderson's way is his new mechanical penis, which makes a loud humming noise at the least opportune moments. FAA investigator Roland Jones, played by John Goodman, tells his disbelieving wife that it sounds "like the refrigerator-freezer we had in that time-share up in Deer Valley."
Goodman, very much in his element as the dogged federal agent--and the only person who suspects Anderson's alien status--is funny, but little else is, even at these early stages. Shandling's bogus sincerity can be amusing, but his distant performance doesn't wear well and neither does the film's overreliance on stale sex jokes. It's an open question whether Nichols' smart but cool direction adds to the problem or simply doesn't do enough to overcome it.
As for alien Harold Anderson, he wastes no time telling morally suspect co-worker Perry Gordon (Greg Kinnear), "I've just got to have sex, I've got to have it right away." Gordon then engineers a visit to a local AA meeting, which he views solely as "a good place to meet vulnerable women."
In fact, Anderson does meet Susan Hart (Annette Bening), sober just a couple of months. A former party animal, she bought herself a new car to celebrate her change of life, and shares the feeling that "it's going to be great to get up and remember where I parked it."
Naturally, Hart, with a history of picking the wrong men, is attracted to Anderson, for whom no one of childbearing age is the wrong woman. Bening does the best she can with this part--her peppy, pajama-clad singing of "High Hopes" is a treat--but she naturally projects more intelligence and focus than the film knows what to do with.
Except for the appearance of Linda Fiorentino, dryly humorous as Perry's libidinous wife, Helen, too much of the rest of "Planet" bogs down in weak dramaturgy about love and commitment. Truly, these are not the likeliest people for us to get all warm and cuddly about. To borrow a title from an earlier film with a similar subject, Earth women may be easy, but making movies about them is not.
What Planet Are You From?, 2000. R, for sexuality and language. A Brad Grey/Bernie Brillstein production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Mike Nichols. Producers Mike Nichols, Garry Shandling. Executive producers Brad Grey, Bernie Brillstein. Screenplay Garry Shandling & Michael Leeson and Ed Solomon and Peter Tolan. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Richard Marks. Costumes Ann Roth. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Bo Welch. Art director Tom Duffield. Set decorator Cheryl Carasik. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Garry Shandling as Harold Anderson. Annette Bening as Susan. John Goodman as Roland Jones. Greg Kinnear as Perry Gordon. Ben Kingsley as Graydon.