What Planet Are You From?
Directed by Mike Nichols
Written by Garry Shandling, others

Starring Garry Shandling, Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, John Goodman


What Planet Are You From?

When the actor on his deathbed said "Dying is easy; comedy is hard," he must have been thinking about "What Planet Are You From?" This poor thing suffers from many problems, not least of which is an inability to decide whether it's a farce, a romance, or a fantasy. With A-list director Mike Nichols (everything from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "The Graduate" to "Working Girl" and "Primary Colors") and ultra-A-list cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (most of Fassbinder's films before he came to America, plus a score of the best-shot-and-lit films of the past two decades here, you could look it up on imdb.com), the film still wobbles uneasily among all three comic styles.

Here's the story: A planet in a faraway solar system has become a cloned race of (only) men. Their reproductive organs, in fact, have atrophied and fallen off, so to speak. But under the rule of leader Ben Kingsley they decide to conquer earth by having one selected man impregnate an earth woman and bring the child back to their planet, though quite how that would work is unclear. The selection is made, however, and it's Garry Shandling. He's given the identity of a banker from Seattle who's moving to Phoenix. Kingsley tells him: "Now if you'll go with these men we'll arrange your transport and attach your penis." Note: in a recent issue of The New Yorker Nichols said, "Ben was born to say that line."

One problem with the new penis is that when it gets excited in the presence of a woman on earth it hums like a vibrator, which is fine in bed but embarrassing in social situations. Nevertheless, Shandling arrives on earth and is given two days in which to find and impregnate a woman.

So far, so good; that is, we have the makings of a farce here. But Shandling, who has producer and story credit and cowrote the script, as an actor is not a farceur. He always shows us another thought, a possible problem or contradiction, lurking somewhere behind his eyes. The audience can see into his brain, which is forever calculating distant possibilities while he's engaged in something here and now. It was part of his appeal on his old HBO show, but it's also what makes him wrong for a film like this. Farce has very strict requirements, including one that says everyone in the scene must be completely focused on only the subject or problem or activity at hand. Conflicting or contradictory thoughts or actions simply take away from the moment and dissipate the humor. So every time we see two thoughts running simultaneously inside Shandling's head we lose the punchline.

In any case, who he meets is Annette Bening, blonde and very good, even believable, in the thankless role of mother-to-be of Shandling's space child. But the film falters here as farce by giving Bening a true human life, including a past as an acoholic. We can't laugh when she falls for Shandling because we care too much for her.

There are two subplots at work also. One involves Greg Kinnear as Shandling's slimy coworker at the bank, and the other has John Goodman (now dangerously obese, by the way) on the trail of the alien as an investigator for the FAA. Each has its moments, but again Nichols has lost the fun by playing them too realistically.

Are there any worthwhile moments? Yes, a few, and one of them involves the water fountain show at the Las Vegas Bellagio that stands in for the incessant sexual activity Bening and Shandling have on their honeymoon. Another is the way in which Shandling and Kingsley meet during Kingsley's supervising visits to earth -- in the lavatory of a plane, after which Kingsley flushes himself down the toilet. But those are pathetically few treats in a film that should have been so much better.    

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