- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2000

Annette Bening, nominated for an Oscar for "American Beauty," now comes to the rescue of a hit-and-miss comedy. The title: "What Planet Are You From?" The beguiling irony: It showcases Miss Bening in a delightful rescue mission while she plays a lovelorn real estate broker, a likable variation on the grotesque caricature that kind of devours her in "American Beauty."

The lighthearted specimen adorning "Planet" is a Phoenix resident named Susan Hart, introduced at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where she confesses to having "bottomed out." The far-fetched but solicitous outlook of "Planet," directed by Mike Nichols from a screenplay that originated with co-star Garry Shandling, permits Susan to transcend her woes by finding domestic contentment with an unlikely mate: Mr. Shandling as an extraterrestrial called Harold.

The plot ostensibly revolves around Harold's clandestine mission to Earth. A promising outer-space prologue identifies Harold as a humanoid inhabitant of a distant planet of lonely guys. Brainy but impotent, they evidently face extinction unless a sexual and reproductive dimension can be added to their civilization. Harold is elected to infiltrate the fertile Southwest and impregnate a suitable mate.

Posing as a loan officer at a Phoenix bank, he prowls babe haunts with a sleazy, philandering colleague named Perry Gordon (Greg Kinnear, reinforcing the "Mighty Men" impression that he's at his best when impersonating arrogant creeps). One of Perry's favorite sites is AA meetings he claims "weepers" are often vulnerable to overnight seduction.

The movie never gets all its potentialities coordinated. The science-fiction farce and the whirlwind courtship and marital farce often seem to operate on discordant, mutually irrelevant frequencies. Fortunately, the basic joke is always amusing. Susan gets to articulate the title, while Harold embodies it. When she's baffled by his preoccupied or inattentive behavior, it's not so much because he's a typical male. He is from another planet, literally.

Accomplished as it is, Garry Shandling's deadpan diffidence would be a precarious focus of human interest for feature length. Miss Bening's frazzled charm as Susan invigorates the romantic comedy. Thanks to this active, energetic alternate protagonist, the movie acquires reliable buoyancy. Given the appealing chatterbox insecurity projected by the leading lady, it's not such a liability for the leading man to be a taciturn schlep of a superman, so unfamiliar with terrestrial customs and idioms that he's habitually slow on the uptake.

Despite its inconsistencies and dangling, expendable elements a subplot with John Goodman as a suspicious government bureaucrat and a completely wasted role for Linda Fiorentino as Mr. Kinnear's spouse "Planet" chalks up repeated highlights while watching Susan and Harold become indispensable to each other.

The co-stars get to cavort through an outlandish wedding night, and they share an inspired couch-potato interlude in which Susan becomes infuriated at Harold's assimilationist behavior: Snacking and watching a football game, the bridegroom demonstrates more attachment to his TV remote than his bride. The filmmakers even uncork an amusing variation on the slapstick childbirth gambit, inventing an obstetric refinement that might appeal to the busy modern woman whose time is at a premium.

I suppose we'll never know if a classic slipped through the slipshod and muddled parts of "What Planet Are You From?" But when it's on the beam, you find it easy to imagine that something exceptionally and decisively funny was within striking distance.


TITLE: "What Planet Are You From?"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, comic and sexual vulgarity; slapstick simulations of intercourse; allusions to alcoholism)

CREDITS: Directed by Mike Nichols. Screenplay by Garry Shandling, Michael Leeson, Ed Solomon and Peter Tolan.

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes


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