The Austin Chronicle

What Planet Are You From?

Rated R, 100 min. Directed by Mike Nichols. Starring Garry Shandling, Annette Bening, John Goodman, Greg Kinnear, Ben Kingsley, Linda Fiorentino, Camryn Manheim, Nora Dunn, Janeane Garofalo.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Sat., March 4, 2000

You know a film's in trouble when you see Ben Kingsley whirling down a toilet more than once in the course of the production. Just a rule of thumb I use, but it seems to work. Mike Nichols, a director who appears to want to be all things to all people these days (his last three films -- 1998's Primary Colors, 1996's The Birdcage, and 1994's Wolf – cover a pretty broad spectrum of filmmaking styles), has fashioned a throwback to the mid-Seventies with What Planet Are You From?, a film that answers the burning question: Can a horny alien make it with an emotionally battered 12-stepper and still lead his planet to universal conquest? Frankly, I don't remember asking the question in the first place, but surely someone did, somewhere. Co-written by Shandling, the film showcases the comedian's wry Jewish humor and fish-out-of-water hubris in a tale that both looks and feels as though a Laugh-In-era Goldie Hawn is going to leap out any moment and toss her navel around. That never occurs and instead we have Bening as Shandling's obscure object of affliction -- new-agey-recovering-alcoholic realtor Susan -- a woman so prone to emotional outbursts that her tear ducts ought to be registered by the Parks Department. Shandling, as alien Harold Anderson, borrows a page from Woody Allen's Sleeper early on, both in the style and tone of his performance. Sent to Earth to jump-start procreation for his all-male planet, he's fitted with a prosthetic member that hums like a shorting pocket pager whenever he's around a prospective mate. The gag, like Kingsley's soggy exits, wears thin with enormous speed – by the third time someone comments on the buzz in his drawers it's become difficult not to cringe. When Nichols is on, he's really on, and there are a couple of moments in What Planet Are You From? that work, particularly Greg Kinnear as Anderson's wildly scheming (and wildly misogynistic) co-worker, a guy so perpetually on the make that he barely registers the oddness of Johnny-on-the-spot Anderson showing up for his first day of work (at a bank no less) with a desperate urge to nail anything that's not already bolted down. I'm a huge fan of Shandling's work on The Larry Sanders Show and the comic's deadpan wit recalls at times the great Jack Benny's withering stare, but What Planet Are You From? is simply an uncomfortable disaster that struggles to re-examine the battle between the sexes and fin de siècle interpersonal relationships through a haze of comic shenanigans. An added subplot featuring John Goodman as an obsessive FAA agent tracking the barely elusive alien only confuses things along the way. Quite possibly, this could have been a hit back in 1975 or so, and almost certainly for Blake Edwards, but here and now it's just a puzzling aberration.

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