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
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
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