Plan 9 From Garry Shandling

Earthlings beware What Planet Are You From?

Until this point, What Planet Are You From? is adequately breezy and sleazy -- a movie about the horniest man in the universe looking for a little one-night stand. But when Bening appears, the film grows stale, soggy; it drowns in Susan's crocodile tears. Worse, Shandling, the screenwriter, falls prey to the standup comic's worst fear: The audience is 100 paces ahead of him. He can tell no joke, offer no scenario we haven't laughed at and forgotten a thousand times over. When Susan, who knows nothing of Harold's true identity or purpose, begins asking him what planet he's from or what his "mission" is ("Ya know -- in life"), we can only roll our eyes. But this is a film that knows no subtlety; sooner or later, we know she was going to tell him, "Why don't you try talking to me like a human being." Guess what? Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

At times, Shandling seems to think he's penning a Nora Ephron movie for Lifetime. He strives for poignancy during a gals-around-the-lunch-table scene (featuring Nora Dunn and Camryn Manheim), when Susan tells her friends she's going to marry Harold after two days because "I'm running out of time." But it's an unintentionally hysterical moment, because it's cheap, manipulative, hollow. The same can be said of the moment Shandling tells his fellow aliens that emotion is a good thing, as a small tear rolls down the side of Mount Garry. It says little of a comedy that its funniest line arrives when Harold explains that "it's through conflict we learn about ourselves." But by then, the film has devolved into nothing but a series of half-hearted aphorisms and platitudes; Shandling apparently wrote the final half-hour on the backs of Hallmark cards, then decided to use the text inside. Still, it's no worse than when Shandling and Nichols try to play a baby's kidnapping for laughs.

What Planet Are You From? has the stink of sitcom all over it -- Mork and Mindy made for the big screen, with a bit of Starman thrown in (a rather laborious subplot features John Goodman as an FAA investigator hot on Harold's trail). That Mike Nichols' name is attached to it means absolutely nothing -- even to those who forgave the director of The Graduate for making its cynical, gooey opposite, Working Girl, 21 years later. The film looks as though it were filmed with a single camera; it might as well have been released as a flip-book. And he could get no more from Bening and Kinnear -- both of whom should have their Oscar nominations revoked -- than he could from Shandling. Susan is alternately annoying and nonexistent, and one can't help but cringe when Bening reenacts the scene from American Beauty, almost movement for movement, in which she stands alone in one of her unsold properties. Only this time, the scene contains no resonance, no meaning. You just sit there, waiting for the commercial break.

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