The best justification for having cable television in the 1990’s was a half-hour HBO satire of late night talk shows starring Garry Shandling. Skewering show business pretensions and egos on a weekly basis, The Larry Sanders Show reveled in its freedom from network strictures, never shying away from depicting its characters in the worst possible light. Sanders himself was a squirming bundle of neuroses – paranoid, insecure, self-loathing – and with his perpetually pained expression, often indistinguishable from Shandling’s stand-up persona. Much like his fellow comedian-turned-TV-star Jerry Seinfeld, the performer melded with the character in the public eye to such a degree, it became difficult to imagine the star in another role.
So there was ample reason to be skeptical about Shandling’s leap to big screen leading man status, especially given the premise of What Planet Are You From? The new comedy, directed by Mike Nichols, tells the story of an alien sent to Earth to impregnate a human female and lay the groundwork for interplanetary domination. In other words, The Astronaut’s Wife played for laughs. But while the previews emphasize a battle-of-the-sexes angle (the marketing team has plundered all the corniest "Men Are From Mars" one-liners from the movie), What Planet Are You From? proves to be a much more heartfelt and engaging romp than it has any right to be.
Shandling stars as Harold, the alien selected from the ranks of identically garbed males by their leader, Graydon (Ben Kingsley, looking like Dr. Evil’s snootier brother). Travelling to Earth, Harold and Graydon board an airplane in mid-flight, causing a rush of turbulence and a flash of eerie white light. Graydon briefs Harold on his mission, which is simply to find a willing female as quickly as possible and inseminate her with his detachable penis. (This might be a good time to mention that one’s enjoyment of What Planet Are You From? will likely hinge on one’s tolerance for penis humor. There is an awful lot of it, much of it revolving around the buzzing sound Harold’s artificial phallus makes when activated. It is activated frequently. You have been warned.)
Armed only with a dated collection of lame pick-up lines, Harold sets off in search of a mate. He lands a job at a Phoenix bank, hooks up with a horndog co-worker (Greg Kinnear, putting his smarmy charm to good use), and together they cruise the local singles bars and AA meetings. While fans of Shandling will no doubt get a kick out of his single-minded shamelessness in these early scenes, the picture doesn’t really take off until Harold first sets eyes on his eventual bride Susan, played by Annette Bening.
Bening is Planet‘s secret weapon. She ups the emotional stakes considerably with an endearing, fully realized performance that doesn’t hit a single false note. Funny as Shandling can be, he knows the value of surrounding himself with more seasoned, versatile talent (Example A being the Larry Sanders tag team of Jeffrey Tambour and Rip Torn, twin marvels of comic acting). As an extraterrestrial visitor on shaky ground when it comes to expressing human feelings, Shandling is playing to his strengths. It’s not that he’s a bad actor, just that – so far, at least – "warm and fuzzy" doesn’t fall within his range. But Bening is so adept at conveying the tangle of love and confusion Susan must negotiate in dealing with her baffling husband from another planet, she actually makes Shandling’s performance more believable. Watching her belt out an adorably goofy rendition of "High Hopes" after learning she’s pregnant, you can only think, "how could he not fall in love with her?"
Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Primary Colors) might seem an unlikely match for this material, but his old school professionalism goes a long way towards making Planet feel like a real movie, rather than an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. He keeps the action percolating, and displays a fizzy sense of comic timing with gags that could easily have fallen flat or gone on too long (such as Kingsley’s unique form of interstellar transportation, or the giddy visual joke that accompanies Harold and Susan’s wedding night in Vegas). It doesn’t hurt that the script (written by Shandling and three collaborators, including former Larry Sanders associate Peter Tolan) is smart enough to open the story up beyond its initial one-joke premise. A subplot involving John Goodman as an FAA inspector following up on Harold’s mid-air appearance seems like excess baggage at first, but dovetails neatly with the climax and ends up delivering some of the movie’s biggest laughs.
In a way, Planet is as much a fish out of water as its spacey protagonist. Romantic comedies that remember to be funny are an increasingly rare commodity. It will be a shame if the sophomoric ad campaign keeps this one from finding the audience it deserves, or if critics end up reviewing the movie’s premise, rather than its clever, skillful execution. It may only be March, but What Planet Are You From? is easily the best buzzing penis movie of the millennium.