The Way of Alien Flesh

A clever script and an on going sound effect carry `What Planet Are You From?' beyond the basic Venus and Mars jokes.

March 03, 2000

A breezy yet diamond-hard humor runs through "What Planet Are You From?," a bawdy, brainy sex comedy geared toward smart people with a sophomoric streak.

At its goofiest and gaggiest, this fish-out-of-water yarn, about a space alien who finds true love while trying to take over the world, will remind viewers of Mel Brooks. At its crudest, it recalls "There's Something About Mary." But at its wisest -- and it is surprisingly wise, in the end -- "What Planet Are You From?" evokes fond memories of director Mike Nichols and his former partner, Elaine May, who together shed a wry, cleansing light on the human condition by way of gently lethal satire.

Garry Shandling is well cast as a dutiful denizen of a distant planet inhabited only by men. Bent on dominating the universe, the planet's leader, Graydon (Ben Kingsley), decides to overtake Earth by colonizing the wombs of its women. Shandling's character is renamed Harold Anderson, given a resume as a bank manager and is sent to Phoenix to find a suitable gestation receptacle. Before setting out on his mission Harold is warned by Graydon to make sure no evidence of his true identity leaks out. "We don't want another Roswell on our hands."

Once on Earth, Harold is taken under the wing of Perry Gordon (Greg Kinnear), a lascivious manager at the bank who immediately helps Harold with his search for a sex partner by visiting a strip joint and then an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It's there that Harold first spies Susan (Annette Bening), a charming mess of a girl who recalls waking up once not knowing where she was, how she got there or who she was with. "And it seemed to me that I should at least know one of those things," she says.

Bening's funny and disarming portrayal of a high-strung, screwed up woman of a certain age is one of the best things about "What Planet Are You From?" and her performance keeps the movie from becoming a one-note exercise in scabrous humor. That department is well taken care of by Shandling, who with his oleaginous voice and skinned-back grin resembles a reptile in wing-tips.

A conventional romantic lead -- Hugh Grant, say, or Rupert Everett -- would make the central conceit of the movie too cute by half. With Shandling, on screen or off, you almost believe he really is an alien.

The essential joke of "What Planet Are You From?" is the Venus-and-Mars dichotomy; the idea that any single, 40-ish man whose main goal in life is to have a baby must be from another galaxy. Although Nichols handles the parallel-universe humor with finesse -- there are some funny passages in which Harold succumbs to the siren call of office politics -- it's a tired notion and not enough to carry an entire movie.

To his credit, and thanks to a smart script by Shandling, Michael Leeson, Ed Solomon and Peter Tolan, "What Planet Are You From?" goes beyond the gender wars and comes up with some legitimately astute and touching observations about relationships, conflict, commitment and ambivalence. Precious few romantic comedies, after all, are brave enough to accept "I think I love you" as a happy ending.

Still, "What Planet Are You From?" works best as a giggle, the kind of comedy that depends on the inner adolescent of its adult audience for most of its laughs. After all, this is a movie whose funniest element is an ongoing sound effect that kicks in whenever Harold is sexually aroused. (One of the best lines is when an FCC investigator played by John Goodman tells his wife that it sounds "like the water heater in the time-share we had in Deer Valley.")

The gag is silly and gauche and howlingly funny every time Nichols uses it. As a brilliant use of sound, timing and the audience's imagination, what might have been offensive or simply boring instead becomes a typically hilarious flourish from the master of truly sophisticated lowbrow comedy.

`What Planet Are You From?'

Starring Garry Shandling, Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, Greg Kinnear, Linda Fiorentino

Directed by Mike Nichols

Rated R (sexuality and language)

Released by Columbia Pictures

Running time 100 minutes

Sun score * * *

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