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Garry Shandling does not have a face for the big screen. He has a mug that seems to spread to the edges of the theater; it's like an approaching storm front, a sky full of billowing clouds roaring in from the north. And it's a face built for two emotions: scorn and ridicule. Anything else he tries on feels phony, forced -- nothing more so than when the man tries to evoke anything remotely sincere, something most human beings call compassion. That, perhaps, is why he was so successful as Larry Sanders, the made-for-HBO talk-show host incapable of empathy. Larry was an oily, insecure creature born in a show-biz cocoon, and there he resided until The Larry Sanders Show went off the air in 1998. The man was never more comfortable than when nestled in his office or in his own bed, watching himself on television the way the lonely traveler gazes at hotel porn.
Of course, it's a mistake to confuse Shandling with Sanders. One, after all, was merely a character created by Shandling -- though Shandling himself seemed to confuse the two when he wrote the appallingly unfunny The Autobiography of Larry Sanders ("as told to Garry Shandling"), published well after the show was off the air. (The book was apparently released directly into bookstores' half-off bins, where it still sits.) Still, the character of Larry Sanders fit Shandling like a Hugo Boss suit; hell, he played Larry better than he did "Garry" on his first TV series, It's Garry Shandling's Show. The HBO series played to the standup's strengths (and weaknesses, of which there are so many), allowing him to sneer when he should have been smiling (the man is all gums). More important, Shandling, despite top billing, was never the star of his own show. Ever the gracious host, he was wise enough to place it in the hands of Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor, who served as sympathetic pitchers: They served up the fat pitches, and all Shandling had to do was stick out his bat, game over.
No doubt the achievement that was Larry Sanders allowed Shandling the opportunity to write his own film (with a handful of collaborators), then snare director Mike Nichols to film the affair -- in which, it should be noted with great dismay, Shandling has plenty of opportunities to rub his flabby naked body on a handful of actresses. But Nichols and Shandling did not get along well during the filming of What Planet Are You From?; the director of The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge has admitted to screaming at the film's writer and star and was known to refer to him as "Garry Shambling" on occasion. Turns out, Nichols was being kind: There's a point halfway through the film when it seems as though Shandling stops even trying to pretend he can act. Imagine Mike Nichols staring at the man who wrote and stars in the movie, who appears as though he's reading from cue cards on another set. Nichols should have known. Has the man not seen Love Affair or Hurlyburly? Shandling acts the way Madonna speaks.
Were that Planet's sole malfunction. As it stands, What Planet Are You From? turns out to be a most benign (and, somehow, offensive) piffle that has no idea what it wants to be -- a slapstick farce, Starman played for cheap laughs, a poignant statement about the human condition (try saying that with a straight face) or a protracted dick joke. Actually, it's a lot of everything and barely much of anything.
The film, which is written in the shorthand of a court reporter, begins with a Star Wars scroll that spells out the finer plot points: A race of men living four solar systems away has evolved to the point where their intelligence is "beyond the realm of human comprehension." They have decided to conquer Earth "from the inside," by sending one of their own to our planet to breed with a woman within 48 hours. According to the planet's ruler, Graydon (Ben Kingsley), the female must be "willing to allow for insertion." Shandling's character (known throughout the film as Harold Anderson) has been chosen for the job, but because these aliens are the result of so much cloning and genetic engineering, they have no penises. So Harold has one attached. The only problem: His dick hums whenever Harold gets aroused -- making him either the strangest man on Earth or the walking vibrator of which all women surely dream (turns out it's the latter).
Harold comes to Earth, where he has a job waiting for him at a Phoenix bank -- which looks like something Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed, then discarded. There, he meets the unctuous Perry Gordon (a goateed Greg Kinnear), the bank's Lothario given to quickies in the vault with female employees, all of whom dress like hookers. Perry takes Harold to the best place to meet women: an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He spies real estate agent Susan (Annette Bening) at the lectern, confessing to her past sins -- most of which involve years of banging musicians while drunk.
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