What Planet Are You From?
never watched The Larry Sanders show, the long-running HBO series that made
Garry Shandling famous, with any kind of regularity. I saw it from time to time,
thought it was funny, but could never muster the passion for it that many of my
film-buff friends had. Why, then was I originally so enthusiastic about seeing What
Planet Are You From?, Shandling's first big break into feature film making,
which, it must be admitted, looked pretty dumb from the previews?
because I can remember watching, and can remember absolutely loving, The
Garry Shandling Show. This was Shandling's pre-Sanders, late-'80s effort,
and it remains with me to this day as a remarkable example of televisual
minimalism. I remember the theme song so well, sung by some very
earnest-looking, tuxedo-wearing chubby guy, right into the camera: "This is
the theme to Garry's show / This is the theme to Garry's show..." and at
one point, "We're almost at the part / Where I start to whis-tle / This is
the theme to Gary Shandling's show!" Then he started to actually whistle.
The show's masterpiece was certainly the mah-jong episode, where Garry claimed
in a brief pre-credit sequence to have just discovered, from his mother as I
recall, the wonders of the game of mah-jong. As he announced that this was to be
the "mah-jong" episode, a small Asian man came up to the microphone
and sang that very same theme song in what I can only guess is Chinese. That
episode struck me as an exceptionally brilliant effort on the part of what was
already a ridiculous, innovative show. Looking back on it, I believe that The
Garry Shandling Show was a kind of Seinfeld "avant la lettre",
so to speak.
why, you may now be asking yourself, am I dwelling so long on a late-'80s TV
show that I have very fond but somewhat vague and probably overly-sentimental
memories of? I'll 'fess up. It's because I'm trying to put off actually having
to write about What Planet Are You From? You see, this is a terrible
film, utterly unworthy of the talents of either Shandling (who also co-wrote the
screenplay) or of its director Mike Nichols. It's not even worthy of the time
and talent of Janine Garofalo, and she's only got a sixty-second cameo (and
that's not really very funny, either). I love Garry Shandling so much, though,
it was just quite a big disappointment to actually watch this monstrosity. But I
guess I better get on with this ....
film's story centers around a planet inhabited entirely by men. It seems that
they have eliminated the need to copulate, having chosen to procreate by cloning
(more efficient, they say). For reasons that are not made very clear, the future
of their race, and therefore of their plans to dominate the universe, is in
danger. Also for reasons that are not made very clear, this can be rectified by
a return to sexual reproduction. Shandling's character is chosen to undertake
this mission, fitted with a penis (seems they've also genetically eliminated the
appendages) and dispatched to find as quickly as possible a woman who will bear
his child. A brief (but seemingly interminable) sequence follows his
heavy-handed attempts to pick up women, and its full of lowbrow and often quite
offensive attempts at humor. Finally Shandling settles on a sweet but very
vulnerable woman played by Annette Bening, who he meets at an AA meeting (don't
ask why he's there; it's too idiotic to recount here). They quickly marry, he
screws her obsessively until she gets pregnant, and then he slowly begins to
experience the emotions that were supposed to have been bread out of his people
eons ago. Oh yeah, John Goodman plays an FAA inspector who's trying to track him
primary problem with the film is its script. The jokes about this alien's
ham-fisted attempts to pick up women often are quite stale, but worse than that,
they're often just vulgar. There are jokes about how large women's breasts are.
There are jokes about how sluttish some women are (guess what: one of the sluts
in question is the office manager at the bank where Shandling works. Does the
world really need more movies that have the sex-crazed secretary as a plot
point?). Shandling's co-worker, played by Greg Kinnear, is like a comedic
version of one of the guys from In The Company Of Men (another film I
hated....), and when his sociopathic boorishness is milked for laughs, it's hard
not to feel a little sick to your stomach.
The performances are all basically fine (except for that Kinnear guy, who strikes me as completely full of himself as an actor, seeming to believe that he's much more clever and subtle than he ever ends up being). Ben Kingsley plays the leader of the Guy-Planet, and he's of course totally wasted. John Goodman has some funny bits, but isn't in the film all that much and doesn't really have much interesting to do when he is in the film. Annette Bening also does a fine job, although her character is so flatly written that it's hard to know exactly what to say about what she does with it. Shandling's performance is the biggest disappointment; he's not given any space to spread out, and until the last reel or so he also seems to be indulging in a very vulgar, very juvenile form of humor. He's funny in the last little bit, though, especially when he's allowed to become his whiny, difficult old self. One scene where he's trying to convince his wife he is an alien and does so by making a blinding white light come out of his nose is especially odd and comic. A few minutes later he's outside with John Goodman, bantering in a deliciously deadpan way about aliens and how he knew the leader of his planet couldn't really cure any wound. And then I get a glimpse of the Shandling that I knew and loved.
But it's much too little, way too late. Gary, what have you done?