The Set-up: Comedian Garry Shandling plays an alien emissary sent from a super-advanced, all-male planet to seduce and impregnate an earth woman and perpetuate a galactic dynasty. He’s the chosen one he’s learned the lines, he’s got the moves. But the aliens lack both reproductive organs and feelings, and in order to be able to join the battle of the sexes on Earth, our inter-planetary ambassador of love is fitted with a pneumatic wonder that hums excitedly when he’s aroused. Co-written and -produced by Shandling, What Planet Are You From? is an extension of the nasty and neurotic style of his late, lamented The Larry Sanders Show. And it’s directed by Mike Nichols, who helmed The Graduate and Working Girl, and is sometimes considered one of the most sophisticated comic talents to ever work in show biz.
KAREN: Sophisticated? When the alien leader Ben Kingsley zaps himself to earth for meetings with Shandling, they arrive and depart through the toilet in an airplane bathroom a pretty strong indictor of this film’s level of humor.
RAY: Can I assume that you aren’t a fan of “Men Are From Mars, Men Are Their Penises” jokes?
KAREN: Even John (“Now, Be Nice to Your Boyfriend, Ladies, Even When He’s a Jerk”) Grey isn’t this lame. Considering the talent involved, the shockingly graceless What Planet Are You From? is quite a disappointment. A better title would be What Planet Can You Be Flushed Away To For All Eternity?.
RAY: I wonder why I laughed. It’s a workable concept: men willing to do anything to impress a woman so long as they don’t have to work too hard at it. Instead of the conventional fish-out-of-water story, we get the newfangled dick-out-of-water story.
KAREN: Come on, if the aliens were so incredibly intelligent and advanced, why wouldn’t they know that women are not Stepford wives who just fall into bed after being told they smell good and have nice footwear? And don’t you think the alien-learning-to-be-human shtick has been done much better in other movies, from the androgynous David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, or E.T., everyone’s favorite PG penis, or even the silly Earth Girls Are Easy that let Geena Davis shave Teletubby-bright fur off Jeff Goldblum and Jim Carrey.
RAY: If you ever watched Larry Sanders, Miss Picky, you’d know that Shandling specializes in jokes about his manhood. It’s funny that he’d take that as the subject of his first feature script.
KAREN: Not funny if you paid hard-earned greenbacks to see it. It’s a joke, not a plot. Plus, part of the fun of this set-up is seeing how the alien adjusts to life on earth. But Shandling’s mission is entirely one-dimensional
RAY: Horizontally one-dimensional
KAREN: Unless you count that vibratingly upright organ.
RAY: I like when he gets shot down by one of his potential conquests and it gargles like a drain, like a garbage disposal grinding down.
KAREN: Whatever. Here, the alien’s ability (or lack thereof) to cope with the unpredictability and fallibility of human behavior is glossed over. Remember when Death comes to life in the body of Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black,and all he wants to do in the earthly plane is eat peanut butter and hang out with a bunch of rich white men arguing about money? This is the same kind of myopia. Shandling’s alien isn’t interested in the world around him, so there’s no thrill in seeing him screw up. He just wants to screw.
RAY: And screw he does. There’s a joke at work here that necessitates a little tabloid knowledgethe priapic alien with the constant drill of pick-up patter has some strange resemblance to the reputed seduction style of Shandling’s best friend, Warren Beattywho just happens to be married to co-star Annette Bening.
KAREN: Do you think Warren hums when he’s pouncing on Annette?
RAY: I don’t know, but Woody Allen put it best: “If I’m reincarnated, I want to come back as Warren Beatty’s fingertips.”
KAREN: Not if he has to touch this mess. And as long as it’s not Greg Kinnear’s leer. He plays a cheery, goateed, back-stabbing reprobate, forgetting that he’s married to sexpot Linda Fiorentino (sorely under-used) so that he can take Gary to find his much-needed sexual partner at strip clubs and AA meetings. That took a lot of intensive script consultation. Tell me, Ray, why, when dealing with a galactically desperate need to seduce, do men cop out and revert to teenage-locker room fantasies? Is that how women really are seen by you guys as gripped with have-to-have-a-baby desperation, there to be picked up, humped and then dumped?
RAY: Um, I think my take on the unfairer sex is a little more involved than that. Comedy is about simplification, but unfortunately, it seems, this extended dick joke is a little too simple. I think we’re identifying both a lack of irony and telling subtext here. Shandling’s 50, Nichols is 68, and they’re trying to be smutty little boys. I’m sure they both have had strong women in their lives, so I doubt this is the core of their life philosophy.
KAREN: Perhaps the Viagra is scrambling their brains, but that’s no excuse. I’m sure many women would absolutely thrill to the notion of their lovers sounding like a Waring blender when it’s time to get it on. A great opportunity for a sight gag was missed by not showing us the apparatus in motion when you hit “Blend.”
RAY: I prefer to puree.
KAREN: Mix me a margarita, pal. It’ll dull the pain of Shandling’s cocky self-absorption.
RAY: But he does have a wonderful deadpan, don’t you think?
KAREN: Ad nauseum. Only marginally more wonderful is Annette Bening being a scatterbrained reformed alcoholic trying to make sure inappropriate men aren’t another one of her addictions. (So ha-ha, she picks an alien, no different from the rest of the losers she knows.) One of the few delights of this film is that Bening, playing another realtor (albeit less compellingly than she did in American Beauty), is about the same age as Shandling. Middle-aged movie stars playing a couple? Stop the presses!
RAY: She is forceful as a fuckup. She’s lonely, wants a child and takes his silly come-on for the real thing.
KAREN: Even in Hollywood comedies, I’d like to hope that women need more than flattery or the promise of some carats from Tiffany’s before the sheets get rumpled.
RAY: Money’ll do, for starters.
KAREN: Luckily I know you’re kidding. A comedy about the ludicrous things men might say or do to cajole women into bed has got to be more complex than one of Shandling’s stand-up routines. (But how can it when this leading man has two expressions: leer and deadpan?) Here, the men are lechers or morons. The women are single and desperate and catty. For all her charm, Bening still falls for Shandling’s baloney once he proposes.
RAY: As I said, I got some yucks. But I felt bad about it afterwards. All these talented people going so professionally through their paces with so little to show for it.
KAREN: I don’t know why you did, either. A couple of cornball laffs does not a movie make.
RAY: Thank my lucky stars the date I had planned to go with didn’t return my call until after the movie!
KAREN: Just be thankful you were seeing this for work and not pleasure. Else your date would have nixed that custom-blended cocktail afterwards.