starring Garry Shandling, Annette Bening, John Goodman, Ben Kingsley
screenplay by Garry Shandling & Michael Leeson and Ed Solomon and Peter Tolan
directed by Mike Nichols
by Bill Chambers To paint a picture of how juvenile Mike Nichols's What Planet Are You From? can get, its running gag is a humming penis. The film stoops, often, to a level of humour rarely found outside the schoolyard--or an episode of "Married With Children". Yet there's infectious sunshine in Garry Shandling's first big-screen starring vehicle that makes it difficult to begrudge its bad taste. Whatever issues I may take with What Planet Are You From? certainly have nothing to do with being offended by it.
Harold's 'spaceship' crashes into a plane bound for Phoenix; he begins work immediately upon exiting the tiny lavatory, flirting unsuccessfully with both a harried flight attendant (Judy Greer) and a passenger (Shandling's receptionist from "The Larry Sanders Show", Janeane Garofalo) who has been frightened by the false turbulence. ("I like your shoes," he tells her as she cries out for comfort.) On the ground, Harold immediately lands an upper-level job at a non-descript financial institution, where he seeks out dating advice from philandering co-worker Perry (Greg Kinnear). Following a few abortive flings, Harold meets recovering alcoholic Susan (a game--perhaps too game--Annette Bening), with whom he shares a desire to have a baby. They marry in Vegas and have a 21-hour honeymoon of non-stop sex. Like many a horndog before him, Harold neglects his duties as a provider of emotional support, and would rather watch TV than discuss feelings with his wife.
The film's witty hook is that Susan can't tell the difference between a man and an alien--moreover, that this member of a notoriously unsympathetic alien race is anthropologically indistinguishable from sleazy Perry or airline investigator Roland Jones (John Goodman), who allows his marriage to disintegrate in his quest to expose Harold's secret identity. As a result, Harold and Susan's interstellar divide is, amusingly, a non-issue. Still, it's not news that the sexes are eternally, and maybe extraterrestrially, engaged in silent battle, and whenever What Planet Are You From? gets its mind out of the gutter long enough to be about long-term relationships, it is no more revelatory than a night at "Yuk Yuk"'s. A little vibrating penis goes a long, long way.
As the man responsible for The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Carnal Knowledge, director Nichols specializes in dissecting gender dynamics, which probably made him seem the ideal choice to mount a quasi-adaptation of John Gray's soupy reference book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Yet What Planet Are You From?'s guiding hand could be mistaken for that of John Landis or Amy Heckerling, especially given the preponderance of nudity and the shabbier edges of the material: the corners of the listless plot don't always meet and Bo Welch's outer-space sets are derivative of Men in Black's gleaming headquarters, which he also designed. (Men in Black writer Ed Solomon also took an early pass at the script.)
Lacking any unique political perspective, What Planet Are You From? is a high-profile T&A comedy, albeit an enjoyable one. The tone of the film is pleasantly relaxed--anticlimactic, really (maybe that's a sex joke in itself)--and awfully sweet, spending a lot of quality time with Nichols favourite Bening as she charms, in spades. Shandling is droll, as always (as a devoted fan of "...Larry Sanders...", I admit a certain bias to the scrunch-faced actor), and, as Harold begins tearing down his emotional girders and taking responsibility for his actions, he displays an oft-muted warmth in full-force. As co-writer of the screenplay, Shandling also gives himself the best line in the movie, say I, though to reveal it would be to spoil many a surprise.
Others in the ensemble are not so successful, notably Kinnear, frittering away the clout earned from an Oscar nomination in a role that has character actor Sam McMurray written all over it. And what the hell are Kingsley and Linda Fiorentino doing here? If Nichols didn't have the reputation of a master, and if the project didn't necessitate hiring big names to elevate its cachet beyond that of another coming-of-human tale (as well as support a TV legend's transition to films), casting choices may have been a little less all-star perfunctory, and subsequently improved the picture. Originally published: March 3, 2000.