Garry Shandling does not have a face for the big screen. He has a mug that seems to spread to the edges of the theater; it's like an approaching storm front, a sky full of billowing clouds roaring in from the north. And it's a face built for two emotions: scorn and ridicule. Anything else he tries on feels phony, forced -- nothing more so than when the man tries to evoke anything remotely sincere, something most human beings call compassion. That, perhaps, is why he was so successful as Larry Sanders, the made-for-HBO talk-show host incapable of empathy. Larry was an oily, insecure creature born in a show-biz cocoon, and there he resided until The Larry Sanders Show went off the air in 1998. The man was never more comfortable than when nestled in his office or in his own bed, watching himself on the television the way the lonely traveler gazes at hotel porn.
Of course, it's a mistake to confuse Shandling with Sanders. One, after all, was merely a character created by Shandling -- though Shandling himself seemed to confuse the two when he wrote the appallingly unfunny The Autobiography of Larry Sanders ("as told to Garry Shandling"), published well after the show was off the air. (The book was apparently released directly into bookstores' half-off bins, where it still sits.) Still, the character of Larry Sanders fit Shandling like a Hugo Boss suit; hell, he played Larry better than he did "Garry" on his first TV series, It's Garry Shandling's Show. The HBO series played to the standup's strengths (and weaknesses, of which there are so many), allowing him to sneer when he should have been smiling (the man is all gums). More important, Shandling, despite top billing, was never the star of his own show. Ever the gracious host, he was wise enough to place it in the hands of Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor, who served as sympathetic pitchers: They served up the fat pitches, and all Shandling had to do was stick out his bat. Game over.
No doubt the achievement that was Larry Sanders allowed Shandling the opportunity to write his own film (with a handful of collaborators), then snare director Mike Nichols to film the affair -- in which, it should be noted with great dismay, Shandling has plenty of opportunities to rub his flabby naked body against a handful of actresses. But Nichols and Shandling did not get along well during the filming of What Planet Are You From?; the director of The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge has admitted to screaming at the film's writer and star and was known to refer to him as "Garry Shambling" on occasion. Turns out Nichols was being kind: There's a point halfway through the film when it seems as though Shandling stops even trying to pretend he can act. Imagine Mike Nichols staring at the man who wrote and stars in the movie and who now appears as though he's reading from cue cards on another set. Nichols should have known. Has the man not seen Love Affair or Hurlyburly? Shandling acts the way Madonna speaks.
Were that Planet's sole malfunction. As it stands, What Planet Are You From? turns out to be a most benign and offensive piffle that has no idea what it wants to be -- a slapstick farce, a poignant statement about the human condition (try saying that with a straight face), or a protracted dick joke. Actually, it's a lot of everything and barely much of anything.
The film, which is written in the shorthand of a court reporter, begins with a Star Wars scroll that spells out the finer plot points: A race of men living four solar systems away have evolved to the point where their intelligence is "beyond the realm of human comprehension." They have decided to conquer earth "from the inside," by sending one of their own to our planet to breed with a woman within 48 hours. According to the planet's ruler, Graydon (Ben Kingsley), the female must be "willing to allow for insertion." Shandling's character (known throughout the film as "Harold Anderson") has been chosen for the job, but because these aliens are the result of so much cloning and genetic engineering, they have no penises. So Harold has one attached. The only problem? His dick hums whenever Harold gets aroused -- making him either the strangest man on earth or the walking vibrator of which all women surely dream (turns out it's the latter).
Harold comes to Earth, where he has a job waiting for him at a Phoenix bank that looks like something Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed and then discarded. There he meets the unctuous Perry Gordon (a goateed Greg Kinnear), the bank's Lothario given to quickies in the vault with female employees, all of whom dress like hookers. Perry takes Harold to the best place to meet women: an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He spies real estate agent Susan (Annette Bening) at the lectern, confessing her past sins -- most of which involve years of banging musicians while drunk.
Until this point, What Planet Are You From? is adequately breezy and sleazy -- a movie about the horniest man in the universe looking for a little one-night stand. But when Bening appears, the film grows stale, soggy; it drowns in Susan's crocodile tears. Worse, Shandling, the screenwriter, falls prey to the stand-up comic's worst fear: The audience is 100 paces ahead of him. He can tell no joke, offer no scenario, that we haven't laughed at and forgotten a thousand times over. When Susan, who knows nothing of Harold's true identity or purpose, begins asking him what planet he's from or what his "mission" is ("ya know -- in life"), we can only roll our eyes. But this is a film that knows no subtlety; sooner or later, we know she is going to say to him, "Why don't you try talking to me like a human being?" Guess what? Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.
At times, Shandling seems to think he's penning a Nora Ephron movie for Lifetime. He strives for poignancy during a gals-around-the-lunch-table scene (featuring Nora Dunn and Camryn Manheim), when Susan tells her friends she's going to marry Harold after two days because "I'm running out of time." But it's an unintentionally hysterical moment, because it's cheap, manipulative, hollow. The same can be said of the moment Shandling tells his fellow aliens that emotion is a good thing, as a small tear rolls down the side of Mt. Garry. It says little of a comedy that its funniest line arrives when Harold explains that "it's through conflict we learn about ourselves." But by then, the film has devolved into nothing but a series of halfhearted aphorisms and platitudes; Shandling apparently wrote the final half hour on the backs of Hallmark cards, then decided to use the text inside. Still, it's no worse than when Shandling and Nichols try to play a baby's kidnapping for laughs.
What Planet Are You From? has the stink of sitcom all over it -- Mork and Mindy made for the big screen, with a bit of Starman thrown in (a rather laborious subplot features John Goodman as an FAA investigator hot on Harold's trail). That Mike Nichols's name is attached to it means absolutely nothing -- even to those who forgave the director of The Graduate for making its cynical, gooey opposite, Working Girl, 21 years later. The film looks as though it were filmed with a single camera; it might as well have been released as a flip book. And Nichols could get no more from Bening and Kinnear -- both of whom should have their Oscar nominations revoked -- than he could from Shandling. Susan is alternately annoying and nonexistent, and one can't help but cringe when Bening reenacts the scene from American Beauty, almost movement for movement, in which she stands alone in one of her unsold properties -- only this time, the scene contains no resonance, no meaning. You just sit there, waiting for the commercial break.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.