[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
You’ve seen the ad: “To save his planet, an alien must find a woman on Earth to have his baby. There’s just one problem.” The accompanying image features a man’s tunic-clad torso, with hands resting near each other below waist level and a bent tulip dangling from his fingers, head terminally down. It’s droll, allusive, absurd, and elegant at the same time — a promise of good comedic fun from cable-TV comedy legend Garry Shandling and ace director-satirist Mike Nichols.
It’s also almost totally misleading. For one thing, the aliens (led by Ben Kingsley) want to conquer our planet, not save theirs. Also, except for one scene in midfilm, the priapic invader experiences no erectile dysfunction — quite the reverse. Yet in another sense the ad indexes What Planet Are You From? accurately. Its makers clearly feel they’re on a satirical mission — to mount (sorry) a wacky allegory of the gender gulf along the Mars–Venus axis — but they can’t really get it up when it comes to sustained, or notably funny, development of the idea.
How did smart people of proven talent make such a lame movie? In his cable sitcoms It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and Larry Sanders, Shandling created (revealed?) a hilarious persona as a self-involved, prodigiously neurotic Southern California guy so locked into his own glassy-eyed, solipsistic wavelength that he might as well have been a visitor from another solar system. He arrives in this movie with credentials intact. Following rote indoctrination on his planet, Shandling makes an amusingly instantaneous transition from otherworldly drone H1449-dash-6 to fatuous Earth guy on the make as soon as he beams down via the lavatory of an Arizona West airliner enroute to Phoenix. (His first attempted conquest is an unbilled Janeane Garofalo.)
But for the greater (which is to say, distinctly lesser) part of the picture, he plays everything in the same key — what we might call hysterical deadpan. As “Harold Anderson,” a new bank officer from Seattle, he’s soon taking lessons in cutthroat workplace ethics and sexist-piggery from colleague Greg Kinnear. Kinnear’s character is such a thorough and transparent sleazoid that, far from upping the satiric ante, he exacerbates the problem. Without any real imaginative play in the situations dreamed up by Shandling and three other writers (about two too many), there’s no sense of comic discovery, and deadpan becomes monotony becomes inertia. The movie’s running gag — Harold’s artificially engineered penis emits a raspy hum whenever he becomes aroused — soon turns into a keynote of bankruptcy.
Everything and everybody is pretty ugly, from the airline investigator (John Goodman) looking into the aliens’ disruption of local flights, to the breakdown of communication between him and his suspicious wife (Caroline Aaron), to the cadre of ball-breakers (Nora Dunn, Camryn Manheim, et al.) who supply sisterhood to Harold’s eventual bedmate, Susan Hart (Annette Bening). The clarion exception is Susan, a brave, sweet, 40ish twelve-stepper who comes to see Harold as her last chance for fulfillment. Despite distracting echoes of other recent Bening roles (entrance via an AA self-introduction à la Mars Attacks!, selling real estate à la American Beauty), the actress brings humanity to the picture as a vulnerable goof with a radiant and ultimately redemptive commitment to hope.
What Planet does pull off a coup of sorts. A lot of movies start off with flair, then fade. This one somehow gets about 300 percent better in its last quarter-hour, with Nichols-class repartee and gleeful late-blooming rapport between Shandling and Goodman, two guys from different galaxies who find that they talk the same language. Suddenly this is a movie worth watching. And it’s over.