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What Planet are You From?

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: What Planet are You From?

Starring: Garry Shandling, Annette Bening
Director: Mike Nichols
Rated: R
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: March 2000
Genre: Comedy

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

As I was leaving the theater, I spotted two people on the street, the sorts of young people sometimes referred to as a box office couple. She: tall blond and statuesque not unlike supermodel Claudia Schiffer. He: a near replica of Brad Pitt. "They must be thoroughly absorbed in each other," I figured, but no. While they were waiting for the light to change, he punched out some keys on his cell phone, got a wrong number, and punched again. "She must be annoyed with this behavior," I assessed, but no: no sooner did he get off the phone than she picked it up and began clicking away herself. What does this all mean? It could mean a simple case of parents calling their baby sitter, but then again it could suggest that both of these beautiful people were more interested in talking to others via technology than through direct, available human contact. All this is an apt metaphor for TV watching, the typical scenario being the nuclear family's sitting around the living for four hours nightly watching their favorite programs and hardly acknowledging one another.

The way technology interferes with human relationships is a fitting subject for documentaries, essays, and most interestingly, science fiction movies. That's the very theme of "What Planet Are You From?", partly produced, partly written, and partly featuring TV host Garry Shandling as the title character. Like the best science fiction, "What Planet," though situated in the future, satirizes our contemporary culture. In exposing the threat of technology it doesn't match up to "1984," which warns against Big Brotherism, "Fahrenheit 451," which cautions against giving up reading in favor of watching the big screen, and one of the greatest of them all, "Logan's Run," a riff on a society that vaporizes its citizens once they reach the useless age of thirty. "What Planet Are You From?" has its moments of rollicking fun, but the whole project appears underwritten, depending on the incessant repetition of a penis joke. A penis has been attached to alien Harold Anderson (Garry Shandling) with a flaw: it hums every time he's excited.

This is the story of a people from a distant solar system who are intent on dominating the universe. To conquer our world, they must (for some unexplained reason) assign one of their citizens to Earth with the task of copulating with a female, producing a child. The baby would be whisked off to the planet and cloned, perhaps thousands of times over, thereby making the conquest of Earth more attainable. The people of the planet are led by Graydon (Ben Kingsley), who selects Harold Anderson for the job, preparing him by furnishing lines to feed the women: "You smell great," or "Your shoes are stylish." The comedy is evoked from the subtleties of which Anderson and his instructors are not aware, in other words, you have to say a lot more to women to make them responsive and you have to show emotion. Unfortunately the people of the distant planet are so technologically advanced--one thousand times more so than those of Earth--that they have lost their capacity to feel. Get it? Therein lies the warning for us back home in the year 2000.

Aside from calling our attention to the dangers of technology, the story takes off from self-help guru John Gray's best-seller, "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: A Practical Guide for improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships." Anderson is to learn that women are not at all like men. They crave intimacy, not one-night stands; they need a shoulder to learn on; they need to be listened to intently as they express the very feelings that men are embarrassed to verbalize. Anderson could not have picked a more complex woman to seduce than Susan (Annette Bening), whom he met at an Alcoholics Anonymous conference to which he was dragged by a randy colleague with whom he works in a bank, Perry Gordon (Greg Kinnear). "A great place to pick up women," cites Perry, as Harold hones in on someone who has just renounced alcohol and who, unfortunately for him, refuses to have any more sex before she is married. Obviously the solution is to propose to her virtually on their first date--wherein much of the comedy lies.

The cast is rounded out by the machinations of an agent of the Federal Aviation Administration, Roland Jones (John Goodman), who is obsessed with finding out why an Arizona West aircraft experienced turbulence three times--each time involving the presence of passenger Harold Anderson.

"What Planet Are You From?" should have been funnier. After all sex comedies are made to arouse frequent, not vaguely periodic laughter ever since Aristophanes penned "Lysistrata" about 2500 years ago--about how women locked their husbands out of their bedrooms until the men ceased making war. Shandling is fine for the role. Not for him the broad buffoonery of a pratfalling Chevy Chase or the inane facial expressions of a Matthew Perry. This would appear the perfect role for him as a confused guy meeting the women of the Earth for the first time and having only a Relationships 101 background to guide him. And Annette Bening combines some of the most alluring looks in Hollywood with a face brimming with character. Greg Kinnear as the guy who gets promoted to vice president of his bank by stealing Anderson's report and who regularly has sex in the bank vault with at least one of the voluptuous women who work in the depository virtually steals the show--looking better than ever in a closely-trimmed goatee. The movie has nothing like the pizazz of "Galaxy Quest" as it plods along, its attractive characters often appearing lost in outer space with generally inane and repetitious dialogue.

Incidentally, I wonder about the people who write the production notes. The press kit uses the word "penis" several times in describing the plot, but instead of spelling the term out, it refers to a p****. Are the real words describing body parts now taboo--in an age in which the most blatant vulgarities are so often spelled out?

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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