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'Planet': Nice Launch, Bad Landing

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2000


    'What Planet Are You From?' Garry Shandling is an alien looking for, um, love with Annette Bening. (Columbia)
In "What Planet Are You From?," the premise may have been too hot to handle.

I refer to an alien (Garry Shandling) dispatched to Earth to procreate, but programmed with sleazy pickup lines to attract women. We're talking alien as clueless lounge lizard.

For a while, "Planet" has its sinfully funny moments. Funny, that is, if you appreciate a certain cynical clamminess – or Buck Henry seediness – to your comedy.

But after streaking an unapologetic path across all politically correct sensibilities, Mike Nichols's movie tries to negotiate a redemptive landing on Planet Hollywood Hugginess, where all bad people turn adorable in the end.

Anyway, Harold the alien (Shandling dressed in black, tanned like cured leather, and amusingly bewildered) lands on Earth looking to make one good baby, courtesy of a willing woman. His mission has something to do with his planet's need to study earthlings and continue to dominate the universe.

The essential joke is, these aliens are hardly versed in sensitive matters pertaining to earthly romance, dating, marriage and procreation. A humorless committee, led by the tight-lipped Graydon (Ben Kingsley), gives Harold some pointers before he goes.

Compliment a woman on her hairstyle, perfume smell and choice of footwear – he is instructed – and her baby-making desires will be instantly accessed. As for sensitive behavior (or the "variables," as Graydon puts it), Harold is pretty much on his own.

Oh, one more thing. The aliens don't have the essential physiognomy for procreation. Harold gets retrofitted with a noisy little number whose hydraulics hum when activated.

"That's attractive," says a disgusted woman, as Harold pursues her, bashing frenetically at his crotch to stop it from rumbling.

Although the gags are often hilarious, the plot doesn't thicken so much as thin.

After getting a job in a bank, Harold makes friends with office rake Perry (Greg Kinnear), who introduces him to strip bars and eventually Susan Hart (Annette Bening), a recovering alcoholic and sex maniac. But after selecting Susan as his target, Harold discovers she's on a new path in life: respect and marriage before sex.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with such a story twist, predictable as it is. And it's almost necessary since, by this point, that humming shtick is already losing its drive. But Shandling and three other credited writers don't really add human dimension to this story so much as human formula. A movie as outlandish as this needs better, uh, conceptual follow-through.

Kinnear's character remains unidimensionally rakish. And there's an almost de rigeur subplot, in which a Federal Aviation Administration investigator (John Goodman) investigates how this Harold Anderson could suddenly appear on a plane in midair after major turbulence and a flash of light. And although Bening is terrific as Susan, her earnest performance brings undue attention to the movie's weaker elements. And did her last name have to be Hart? Puhleez.

This brings me to a rather off-kilter possibility: Is "Planet" a metaphor for the Warren Beatty-Annette Bening marriage? I mean, after a lifetime of sexual conquests, Warren (a good friend of Shandling) has finally settled down with a woman who has the dual capacity to be sexy and a mother. And who has allowed him to accept the aging process and – okay, okay, I'm zoning off into the cosmos. Time to get back to this planet.

WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM? (R, 105 minutes) – Contains offensive comments, strong language, nudity and sexual scenes.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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