Eric D. Snider

What Planet Are You From?

"What Planet Are You From?" is a surprisingly sincere comedy that, despite its ridiculous (and occasionally obscene) concepts, and the presence of Garry Shandling, might actually qualify for the "romantic comedy" category.

It starts out strong, with a dramatic underscore and a "Star Wars"-style scroll that tells us the story so far, and continues throughout to be either subtly funny or incredibly crass (and funny). There are also curiously long stretches that aren't funny at all.

Harold (Shandling) is an alien on a distant planet that is far more advanced than ours. (Isn't that always the way?) They are so advanced, in fact, that, in true male fashion, they have done away with those pesky and unnecessary emotions altogether, and are a race of cloned men.

Their plan is to take over Earth from the inside by having their men come here, impregnate women, and within a few generations, every person on Earth will be alien.

The problem is, these guys have evolved to the point where they don't have reproductive organs. Therefore, when Harold is sent as a scout to see if the plan is going to work, he has to have genitalia installed. And, when he gets aroused, it hums.

That's the crass part (well, one of the crass parts), and that joke actually plays a fairly major part in the film. It's a funny joke, and typical of Shandling's understated-yet-outrageous performance style. This guy has not been appreciated as much as he should have been throughout his career. He's a talented comic actor, with impeccable timing and delivery, and he more than adequately carries this film.

Anyway, Harold gets a job in Arizona as a loan officer at a bank, and immediately begins trying to pick up women, based on his training back home (which was based on what little information they had available to them -- their hologram practice woman was dressed like a 1950s housewife). His slimy co-worker (Greg Kinnear) takes him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to pick up women, and Harold winds up with Susan (a marvelously sludgy Annette Bening).

His attempts to impregnate her are thwarted by her recent decision that she will not have sex again until she's married. That's easily solved, though; Harold convinces her to marry him, and sure enough, she gets pregnant.

Meanwhile, Harold begins to discover emotions, ultimately leading the film's rather sweet message about learning "what love is." (The answer: Not even the human beings have figured it out yet, let alone aliens.)

On Harold's trail, perhaps only because movies about aliens require them, is John Goodman as an FAA investigator who suspects an alien may have boarded a passenger plane (that's how Harold arrives from his home planet). Goodman is jolly, as usual, and while his character may be throw-away, it's always a treat to watch him do his thing.

"What Planet Are You From?" is essentially a comedy about the differences between men and women; all other elements -- including the important-but-we're-neglecting-it sci-fi issues get sloppy. These are the types of aliens, for example, who learn enough about Earth culture to where Harold can get a job as a loan officer and excel at it -- yet they fail to learn such basic slang as "pain in the butt." Then there's the fact that when Harold and Susan's baby is born and then is inexplicably taken back to the home planet (wasn't the plan to raise them on Earth and eventually take over?); plus some of the jokes are a bit tired. (Men love the remote control. OK, WE GET IT!) There's also the ridiculous fact that Susan agrees to marry Harold after only one date, and her sped-up pregnancy seems to be not so much because alien fetuses develop faster, but because the writers didn't want to cover nine months' worth of relationship.

But along the way, there are some amazingly funny and clever lines of dialogue, and the final scene is a classic, in which Harold and Susan discuss a possible "transfer" because his home planet wants him to be their new leader ("I don't even know what the schools are like there," she says. "We're a thousand years ahead of Earth. What do you think the schools are like?" he replies). It's a nearly brilliant exchange, twisting conventional domestic comedy into something weird and fresh.

Grade: B

Rated R, heavy profanity, vulgarity, several scenes of female nudity, mild violence

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