By Charles Taylor
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By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
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Garry Shandling does not have a face for the big screen. He has a mug that seems to spread to the edges of the theater; it's like an approaching storm front, a sky full of billowing clouds roaring in from the north. And it's a face built for two emotions: scorn and ridicule. Anything else he tries on feels phony, forced -- nothing more so than when the man tries to evoke anything remotely sincere, something most human beings call compassion. That, perhaps, is why he was so successful as Larry Sanders, the made-for-HBO talk-show host incapable of empathy.
Of course, it's a mistake to confuse Shandling with Sanders. One, after all, was merely a character created by Shandling, though Shandling himself seemed to confuse the two when he wrote the appallingly unfunny The Autobiography of Larry Sanders ("as told to Garry Shandling"). Still, the character of Larry Sanders fit Shandling like a Hugo Boss suit. The HBO series played to the stand-up's strengths, allowing him to sneer when he should have been smiling. More important, Shandling, despite top billing, was never the star of his own show. Ever the gracious host, he was wise enough to place it in the hands of Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor, who served as sympathetic pitchers: They served up the fat pitches, and all Shandling had to do was stick out his bat; game over.
No doubt the achievement that was Larry Sanders allowed Shandling the opportunity to write his own film (with a handful of collaborators), then snare director Mike Nichols to film the affair. But Nichols and Shandling did not get along well during the filming of What Planet Are You From? The director of The Graduate has admitted to screaming at the film's writer and star and was known to refer to him as "Garry Shambling" on occasion. Turns out Nichols was being kind: There's a point halfway through the film where Shandling seems to stop even trying to pretend he can act.
Were that Planet's sole malfunction. As it stands, What Planet Are You From? turns out to be a most benign (and, somehow, offensive) piffle that has no idea what it wants to be -- a slapstick farce, Starman played for cheap laughs, a poignant statement about the human condition (try saying that with a straight face) or a protracted dick joke. Actually, it's a lot of everything and barely much of anything.
The film begins with a Star Wars scroll that spells out the finer plot points: A race of men living four solar systems away have evolved to the point where their intelligence is "beyond the realm of human comprehension." They have decided to conquer earth "from the inside," by sending one of their own to our planet to breed with a woman within 48 hours. According to the planet's ruler, Graydon (Ben Kingsley), the female must be "willing to allow for insertion." Shandling's character, Harold Anderson, has been chosen for the job, but because these aliens are the result of so much cloning and genetic engineering, they have no penises. So Harold has one attached. The only problem: His dick hums whenever Harold gets aroused, making him the walking vibrator of which all women surely dream.
Harold comes to earth, where he has a job waiting for him at a Phoenix bank. There, he meets the unctuous Perry Gordon (a goateed Greg Kinnear), the bank's lothario given to quickies in the vault with female employees. Perry takes Harold to the best place to meet women: an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He spies real estate agent Susan (Annette Bening) at the lectern, confessing her past sins.
Until this point, What Planet Are You From? is adequately breezy and sleazy, a movie about the horniest man in the universe looking for a little one-night stand. But when Bening appears, the film grows soggy; it drowns in Susan's crocodile tears. Worse, Shandling, the screenwriter, falls prey to the stand-up comic's worst fear: The audience is 100 paces ahead of him. He can tell no joke, offer no scenario, that we haven't laughed at and forgotten a thousand times over. When Susan, who knows nothing of Harold's true identity or purpose, begins asking him what planet he's from or what his "mission" is, we can only roll our eyes.
At times Shandling seems to think he's penning a Nora Ephron movie for Lifetime. He strives for poignancy during a gals-around-the-lunch-table scene, when Susan tells her friends she's going to marry Harold after two days because she's "running out of time." But it's an unintentionally hysterical moment, because it's cheap, manipulative and hollow. It says little of a comedy that its funniest line arrives when Harold explains that "it's through conflict we learn about ourselves." But by then the film has devolved into nothing but a series of halfhearted aphorisms and platitudes; Shandling apparently wrote the final half hour on the backs of Hallmark cards, then decided to use the text inside.
What Planet Are You From? has the stink of sitcom all over it -- Mork and Mindy made for the big screen, with a bit of Starman thrown in. That Nichols's name is attached to it means absolutely nothing. The film looks as though it were filmed with a single camera; it might as well have been released as a flip-book. And he could get no more from Bening and Kinnear than he could from Shandling. Susan is alternately annoying and nonexistent, and one can't help but cringe when Bening re-enacts the scene from American Beauty, almost movement for movement, in which she stands alone in one of her unsold properties. Only this time the scene contains no resonance, no meaning. You just sit there, waiting for the commercial break.
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