Saturday, October 20, 2012

Astronomically Average: "What Planet Are You From?" (2000)

Gary Shandling co-writes, co-produces, and stars in a comedy that plays like a pilot for a pay channel series.

Shandling is an alien on a planet of men run by Graydon (Ben Kingsley). The men want to take over the planet Earth, and send Harold down to impregnate a woman, and eventually take over the planet with alien seed. Of course, Harold's training was not adequate, and his first attempts at getting any woman he meets into bed are hilarious. Harold works at a bank with Perry (Greg Kinnear), who is always on the prowl when he is not in the vault boinking the office manager. Perry takes Harold to Alcoholics Anonymous to pick up chicks, and Harold notices Susan (Annette Bening).

Susan is a recovering alcoholic who has made some bad decisions in her life and is looking to make a complete change. She appreciates Harold's honesty, and eventually marries him. They start trying to have a baby right away.

Roland (John Goodman) is an FAA inspector who is investigating mysterious turbulence and lights on assorted Arizona flights. Each time, one of the passengers has been Harold, and Roland figures out that Harold is an alien. Harold has been using the flights to meet with Graydon, who is usually of no help whatsoever. Harold is supposed to father a child, but he finds himself falling in love with Susan, given his limited understanding of emotions. Susan usually does not know what to think of her new husband, who will either ignore her or make love to her over a hundred times during their honeymoon week with a member that makes a humming noise (Harold's planet of men no longer have genitalia, so he was fitted with one before he left).

Harold soon becomes overly involved in his assignment on Earth. He tries to bed back-stabbing Perry's wife Helen (a seriously wasted Linda Fiorentino). Perry gets a promotion after passing off Harold's work as his own. Roland is closing in on him quickly. Susan finally conceives, and has a healthy baby after an abbreviated pregnancy, and then Harold's problems get even more dire.

Mike Nichols directs a big name cast in a sitcom level script. There is enough nudity (even Shandling) and language to get this on any pay cable channel, but if you replaced Shandling and Bening with names like Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy, you quickly realize how pedestrian and lowbrow the humor here is. Bening scores some laughs as the worrying Susan, Shandling is funny here and there, but everyone also puts more acting effort into the film than the script demands. After Susan gives birth, the film nosedives into maudlin territory as Harold tries to return to his home planet. The cast's intensity is all wrong.

Nichols' direction is fine, the man pretty much reinvented comedy direction with "The Graduate," but again, the script screams for a director with a lighter touch.

"What Planet Are You From?" has the talent in front of and behind the camera, just not in the screenplay. It scores some laughs, probably more than if the cast were all under twenty years old, but eventually this misses its satirical possibilities. (* * *) out of five stars.