BAD FILMS FASCINATE, sometimes more than good ones, the ones we praise, cherish, rent again and again, and usually understand. Yet a true stinker of a movie is so gloriously incomprehensible that you return to it over and over—usually by accident, during insomniac channel surfing or when trapped on a transcontinental flight—and every time the same question arises: "What were they thinking?" By now, the meaning of Citizen Kane is pretty well teased out. We get it. But What Planet Are You From? may confound its reluctant viewers for years to come.
WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?
directed by Mike Nichols
with Garry Shandling, Annette Bening, Greg Kinnear, and John Goodman
opens March 3 at Meridian, Metro, Oak Tree
Mind you, the premise we understand, naturally; it sells itself. Garry Shandling is an alien sent to impregnate an earth woman so his advanced civilization can eventually take over our planet. It's more than a bit of a clich鬠and you can tell that Shandling—the script's originator—is winking at it in his enjoyably squirmy, wincing, exasperated performance. That's his comic trademark, of course, the intensely neurotic self-consciousness of his characters, where narcissism and vulnerability are inseparable. On HBO's The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98), Shandling honed a persona that was perpetually uneasy, self-aggrandizing, self-loathing, and insecure—but above all brilliantly funny.
So you can understand why Annette Bening and the rest of Planet's capable cast signed on, along with director Mike Nichols, whose entire career—from The Graduate to Wolf—is like a macrocosm of the Shandling persona's love-hate relationship with popularity. They both want to be liked, but if they try too hard, audiences tend to rush for the exits. The same is true for the women whom Shandling's alien immediately begins hounding upon his arrival on earth. If the entire movie consisted of his funny nonstop come-ons meeting with constant rejection, we'd have enjoyed the epic catalog of failed pick-up lines and rebuttals. "But I love your shoes! And you smell great," he keeps imploring, doggedly repeating the phrases of his prior training.
FLATTERY WON'T WORK, and in his assumed identity as a Phoenix banker, he lets his lecherous colleague Perry (Greg Kinnear) take him to prey on recovery cases at an AA meeting, where he spots Susan (Bening). From there, Planet pairs its leads in an occasionally amusing romantic comedy. (The film's best recurrent gag concerns the noises made by the alien's reproductive machinery.) Complications ensue mainly because Shandling needs them to: A henpecked FAA official (John Goodman) pursues him, his alien leader (Ben Kingsley) breathes down his neck, and Perry becomes his rival at the bank.
As a screenwriter, Shandling hasn't got the discipline of his stand-up and TV work. All the plot contrivance simply builds to a pell-mell conclusion that, like everything else in his story, Shandling may not mean you to take seriously. So why bother with the banalities and sentiment? We're initially told "All emotions have been bred out of this race," that the alien civilization is too "ambitious and driven." In other words, they're yuppies and—what's worse—not in touch with their feelings.
Garry Shandling has feelings? Did Larry Sanders have feelings? Tender ones? Nurturing ones? Human ones? When Shandling's alien goes on a bender, trying to resume his seduce-and-abandon mission, his nastiness and cynicism briefly flicker to life. That's the Garry Shandling we know and love—quick, caustic, and uncontrite. Unfortunately, in his big-screen parable about love, commitment, and family values, the inner Garry Shandling turns out to be startlingly middlebrow and disappointingly conventional. By the time you realize he doesn't mean to turn his wit against the platitudes and feel-good affirmations, there's no hope left for this Planet.