What Planet Are You From? (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Ever had the feeling that you're not getting the whole story? That's what it's like to watch What Planet Are You From?, which suffers from the kind of editing job that indicates a cluttered cutting room floor. The product that survived appears to be held together with glue and staples - significant chunks of the plot have been excised, characters come and go with little rhyme or reason, and subplots vanish into thin air. Making sense of this movie is a feat that requires a nimble mind and a fertile imagination.

What Planet Are You From? is being billed as a science fiction comedy, but it's one of those films that spends its first half unsuccessfully trying to generate laughs before giving up on the humor aspect altogether and trying to become a feel-good drama. That doesn't work, either, in large part because this shell of a movie, which is more like a skeleton than a finished product, doesn't have the characters or the storyline to support even the mildest dramatic occurrence. The final result fails provoke much laughter or a significant emotional response.

The film opens on a distant planet that is populated exclusively by "males" (they look like men, but, since they have no sex organs, the implication of a gender is probably incorrect). They are technologically advanced but emotionally sterile, and their sole goal is universal domination. Their latest target for takeover is Earth, but, instead of doing things the way most movie aliens do, they decide to attach a penis to one of their own, send him to Earth, and have him father a child. The screenplay never makes it clear exactly how this act is going to facilitate the planet's downfall - I think we're just supposed to accept that it is.

The chosen one is Harold (Gary Shandling), who starts trolling for women as soon as he reaches our fair world. After a few missteps, he hooks up with Susan (Annette Bening), who arouses his interest and his libido. Because she won't have sex until she's married, he pops the question, then whisks her off to Vegas for a quick wedding and a long honeymoon. Meanwhile, various subplots fade in and out. One features a government agent (John Goodman) on Harold's trail. Another centers on a sleazy work rival (Greg Kinnear). And there's a sexy woman (Linda Fiorentino) who is anxious to teach Harold about the benefits of marital infidelity.

What Planet Are You From? is directed by veteran filmmaker Mike Nichols, who is no stranger to comedy (his 1996 effort, The Birdcage, was a critical and box office success, as was 1988's Working Girl). However, this movie is stillborn - it almost seems as if Nichols didn't have his heart in the material from the beginning. The list of screenwriters (there are four of them) is another sign of a problem. A rule of thumb is that the more people it takes to write a script, the less coherent and entertaining it is likely to be. This is arguably Nichols' most uninspired output since he slipped up with Regarding Henry, another film that ironically featured Annette Bening.

Speaking of Bening, she is one of the film's few bright spots. She attacks her role with zest, and, seemingly by charisma alone, causes us to care about Susan, even though the character is underwritten. Similar credit cannot be given to Gary Shandling, who smirks his way through the part. In the beginning, Harold is supposed to be emotionless, but, by the end, he is intended to be human in every way (except that his penis hums when excited). Unfortunately, Shandling's portrayal shows no growth whatsoever. Harold is as bland when the end credits roll as he is just after the opening credits. High profile performers like Ben Kingsley (playing the leader of Harold's planet), Greg Kinnear, John Goodman, and Linda Fiorentino are underused in parts that may have been trimmed in the editing room.

In a way, it's amazing that a movie with so many sex jokes can turn out to be so unfunny. As countless filmmakers have illustrated over the years, sex can be one of the most amusing subjects to structure a comedy around, but What Planet Are You From? proves that the subject matter offers no guarantees. At best, the movie is fitfully amusing, but the level of laughter is not high enough to relieve the tedium generated by the banal, uneven romance that fills up the rest of the screen time. In the opening scenes, What Planet Are You From? tantalizes the audience with the hope of something inventive (a large group of aliens, including Harold, are given sex ed lessons). Sadly, the movie never comes close to fulfilling that early promise, and What Planet Are You From? fails to get off the ground.

What Planet Are You From? (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2000-03-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1