A “Visit to a Small Planet” with nothing but sex on the brain, “What Planet Are You From?” is a dirty-middle-aged-man’s comedy that suggests Garry Shandling is headed for a screen career more closely resembling that of Joey Bishop than those of Jerry Lewis or Woody Allen. Good for a few lascivious titters but quite lacking in the sort of comic bite and social satire one hopes for in the work of Mike Nichols, this Sony release is a minor work for all concerned. Pre-opening weekend sneaks and strong TV promo may propel this to virile opening numbers, but Viagra will be needed thereafter.
The main gag in this erectile-centric farce involves a mechanical humming sound that is heard whenever Shandling’s extraterrestrial becomes attracted to an Earth woman. When this alien arrives on terra firma, encounters his first females and has to slam his hand down on his crotch in order to keep his implanted reproductive gizmo under control, it’s pretty funny. It’s still somewhat amusing when he manages to get a willing woman in the sack and the humming is revved up to unprecedented levels. But an hour later, when the film is still squeezing the same lemon for the last drops of comic juice, it’s become sadly unfunny, given the lack of interest in other matters the picture has displayed.
Sent to Earth from a highly advanced world where cloning has replaced sex, and surgically outfitted with a lifelike phallus with which he is to impregnate a human in order to facilitate the takeover of Earth, Shandling’s intergalactic sexual soldier assumes the bland name of Harold Anderson and takes a job at a Phoenix bank for what he is sure will be a short stint. When his direct approach to women (“I have to have sex right away! I’m really very horny!”) doesn’t yield the desired results, he begins making the rounds with philandering married co-worker Perry Gordon (Greg Kinnear), who takes his new pal to a strip club and then to an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering in search of chicks.
It’s at AA that Harold meets Susan (Annette Bening), a neurotic lost soul who’s always struck out with men and is angling for a fresh start (when she says, “Don’t laugh, but I’m working as a real estate agent,” the line gets one of the biggest laughs in the picture, given fresh memories of her role in “American Beauty”). Since Susan has sworn off men as part of her new life plan, Harold’s straightforward sexual come-ons (and frequent humming) don’t work, but he disarms her by truthfully stating that his mission in life is to father a baby, and it doesn’t take long for the 40-ish Susan to come around.
The couple marry in Las Vegas, and their wedding night, drolly played against the backdrop of undulating fountains and the local version of the Eiffel Tower, reps one of the film’s comic highlights. Since she has refused sex before marriage, Susan is delighted at her mate’s considerable, if somewhat noisy, sexual prowess during 21 hours of nonstop humming. After some anxiety on her part, and an uncharacteristically dismal extramarital excursion by Harold with Perry’s avid wife (Linda Fiorentino), Susan becomes pregnant. Instead of causing Harold to return home with his mission accomplished, this life-altering development eventually puts him in touch with human feelings and into conflict with his supreme leader (Ben Kingsley).
Screenplay’s setup is a way of using Harold’s alien status to comment upon the elemental Mars-Venus differences between men and women, and it’s an adroit starting point: Although they are portrayed in parodic extremes, Harold’s single-minded obsession with sex and Susan’s deeper desire for talk and emotional sustenance serve as effective literal metaphors for the familiar claims that the two sexes seem to come from different planets where their instinctive drives are concerned.
Nowhere in the picture, in fact, is there to be found anything resembling interpersonal harmony: Perry cheats shamelessly on his wife, who is happy to return the favor; Susan’s women friends all seem like dissatisfied, gossip-hungry types, and Roland Jones (John Goodman), an aviation authority who relentlessly pursues his (correct) hunch that an alien has arrived on Earth by way of a commercial flight, is the classic henpecked husband, a consummate pro at the office and an intimidated, cowering little boy at home at the hands of his harpy of a wife (Caroline Aaron).
But while the theme of the perennial and profound differences between the sexes is present, it is scarcely explored. The picture is content to bounce along on the surface; you can practically hear lewd chortles coming from behind the camera when an alien sex instructor informs that the difficulty with Earth women is that they need to be willing “to experience insertion,” or when a condom worn by Harold during his first sexual experience shoots across the room like a rocket. Thirteen year-old boys would love the film if they could get into this R-rated picture.
Part of the problem, too, is Shandling, whose exceedingly limited range as a performer is exposed for anyone to see when he’s center-screen through most of a major feature. Former TV star’s timing is expectedly good, but his facial expressions alternate between one of smug superiority and another of pained squinting, as if he’s smelling something particularly odious. If a director as skilled with performers as Nichols can’t get more out of him than this, one wonders who could.
Bening, Goodman, Kinnear, Fiorentino and Aaron hit their marks, comic and otherwise, with precision, while Kingsley is suitably imperious as Harold’s supreme leader. Janeane Garofalo has a brief uncredited cameo as the first Earth woman Harold meets on the plane. Tech aspects are crisp, with special effects charmingly low-tech.