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What Planet Are You From?
The 2000 Garry Shandling comedy What Planet Are You From? is better than one might assume from its terrible box office performance and the bizarrely vitriolic reception of critics when it was released. (Roger Ebert called it the "most uncomfortable movie of the new year.") The film teams veteran comic Shandling with veteran director Mike Nichols, which no doubt raised expectations a bit too high. Considering both men's prior work, this muddled film can't help but disappoint. Taken on its own terms, though, it's a modestly entertaining comedy that takes the premise that "men are from Mars" and runs with it.
Shandling stars as an alien, on a mission to find a human woman to impregnate, as step one in his all-male planet's attempt to conquer Earth. After an amusingly insulting sequence, in which the aliens learn to pretend to listen to what Earth women say and compliment them on the way they smell, the leader of the planet, Graydon (Ben Kingsley), picks Shandling's character for this tricky mission. He is given the name "Harold Anderson" and set up with a job in a bank in Phoenix, Arizona.
Harold's constant barrage of canned pick-up lines, and his inability to understand women's resistance to his "charms," catches the attention of slimeball co-worker Perry (Greg Kinnear), who assumes he has found a kindred spirit. Perry takes Harold to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to look for some vulnerable marks, which is where Harold first meets Susan (Annette Bening). Susan is a former party girl, looking to get her life back on track. She's skeptical of Harold, but finds something oddly refreshing about him too. When Susan says she isn't going to sleep with anyone else until she gets married, a desperate Harold proposes marriage.
What Planet Are You From? is at its best when it makes funny observations about the way men and women in relationships talk to each other. The clever but not-so-subtle point the film makes is that Harold is like most men, who might as well be a different species from women. For example, Harold thinks too literally, which makes him inept when it comes to dealing with Susan's emotional responses. When she becomes distraught that he wants to leave and fix the TV remote rather than spend time with her, she says, "Fine, go." So he leaves. He doesn't get that she told him to go, because she didn't want him to go. It's not unfamiliar comic territory, but Shandling's dry reactions often coax unexpected laughs from these scenes. Harold's emotional growth and eventual understanding of Susan sometimes feels more like a contrivance of the script than an organic development of the character, but it provides a solid throughline for many of the film's best moments.
The rest of the film, however, is overstuffed with underdeveloped subplots and underutilized talent. John Goodman is particularly wasted as an FAA inspector who becomes obsessed with Harold and tries to compile evidence that will expose his true identity. Linda Fiorentino is sexy and sly as Perry's neglected wife, who tries to seduce Harold as revenge, but she also pretty much disappears after a few scenes. In fact, every other minute another great actor appears onscreen -- Janeane Garofalo, Camryn Manheim, Nora Dunn, Judy Greer, Richard Jenkins, Jane Lynch, Octavia Spencer -- only to be forgotten moments later, to little effect. Even Kingsley and Kinnear are barely given enough screen time to register as proper antagonists.
Maybe Shandling and Co. felt like they needed the hook of a high-concept idea and an ensemble cast to sell the smaller situation comedy they really wanted to make. It's an understandable ploy, considering that these days if you want to make a mainstream movie that explores interesting human themes, you've got to smuggle them into a superhero story. Unsurprisingly, Mike Nichols is not interested in the same things as Joss Whedon or Edgar Wright, and there is a palpable lack of investment in the genre elements of this film.
One wishes they found a way to go the honest indie route instead, and just made this story explicitly about emotionally stunted middle-aged people learning to love, instead of turning that arc into the implied thematic subtext. Of course, if they had nixed the alien angle, it would dramatically cut down on the vibrating penis jokes (Harold's race is born without genitals, so he is outfitted with a prosthetic that vibrates when he is aroused)... and, at present, those unusual erections account for about a quarter of the gags in the film. In fact, a more appropriate title would have been, "Why Is Your Crotch Buzzing Every Few Minutes?"
Despite its flaws, What Planet Are You From? is a suitably entertaining comic romance. Presumably the poor reaction to the film scared Garry Shandling off from attempting to make another starring vehicle (or maybe it scared off Hollywood). That's a shame, because Shandling is often tremendously funny in the film. It's not inconceivable that with a sharper script, he could have built on his TV legacy and become an offbeat movie star. Instead, we're left with a pleasant enough film that's fairly forgettable. If you've never seen What Planet Are You From?, I recommend giving it a shot, but I doubt you'll be tempted to revisit it as much as old episodes of It's Garry Shandling's Show or Larry Sanders.
What Planet Are You From? is back in print on manufactured-on-demand (MOD) DVD-R, courtesy of the Sony Choice Collection. The front cover of the new version reproduces the art from the 2000 DVD release, and does not feature the Sony Choice logo. Unlike some of Warner's DVD-R reprints, this does not duplicate the original DVD, as there are no menus, aspect ratio options, or bonuses. The film just plays and repeats if you do not stop it first.
The widescreen 1.85:1 transfer is satisfactory for a film released in the past two decades. Without the old DVD to compare, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the vivid color and contrast is fairly accurate and probably pretty similar to the original. On the other hand, the soft, somewhat noisy aspects of the way the film looks here are probably the fault of the new encode. If you're not looking for flaws, you probably won't be bothered, but it's definitely not a pristine presentation.
The Dolby 5.1 surround audio is also just fine. Dialogue and effects are clear. The score by frequent Coen Brothers composer Carter Burwell sounds good in the surround speakers. No subtitles, but English closed captioning is available.
Special features? On a Sony Choice disc? What planet are you from, fella?
Considering the cast and director, it's surprising that What Planet Are You From? is not a lot better. Yet it's not nearly as bad as its reputation, either. Shandling and Bening make an engaging and highly amusing couple, which is enough to carry the movie through its lumbering plot contrivances. You can probably find the original 2000 non-MOD DVD for cheaper than this new DVD-R release, but however you decide to check it out, the movie comes mildly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. His new single, Don't Depend on Me, is now available to stream or download on Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed.