What Planet Are You From?

One of the most important rules of making a comedy is that you can’t have it both ways. You can either have a goofball, irreverent, slapstick jamboree, in which case it has to be funny, but isn’t required to make a whole lot of sense. Or you can aim higher and make a more ambitious movie, raunchy at director’s discretion but also insightful and intelligent. The latter, however, has one catch: it has to have a thought-out plot. Mike Nichols’s new movie What Planet Are You From? is missing that last all-important component.

Harold takes a liking to Susan, a real estate agent/recovering alcoholic (Annette Bening, playing a real estate agent for the second time in a row). She is vulnerable at the time and she marries him on the spot. Their relationship doesn’t exactly take off because all the groom cares about is that baby while the blushing bride worries that she may be sterile. Meanwhile, a Federal Aviation Administration agent (John Goodman) notices some strange things and gets on Harold’s trail.

There are actually a lot of good things to say about What Planet Are You From?. First and foremost is Annette Bening’s performance which is the best of the movie. In her last film, American Beauty, her gem of a performance went somewhat underappreciated (even though, oddly enough, it got an Oscar nomination) because it was upstaged by the acting behemoth that is Kevin Spacey and the film’s generally bizarre nature. Here, she gets a chance to shine; there is a scene where she does an uproarious song-and-dance rendition of “High Hopes” that won’t soon leave my memory.

Garry Shandling doesn’t have the best comic timing around, but he is a whiz of facial expressions and because of the nature of his performance, he is often dead-on. The running gag, of course, is the humming genitalia, which somehow manages not to turn this into a one joke movie. It gets somewhat predictable, but never old.

The movie really is quite funny, and at times affecting, but as a whole it doesn’t hold up. It feels incomplete because while the film seems to actually care about the characters and their emotionss, it doesn’t have an iota of concern for its plot. Nothing makes sense. The film doesn’t bother to explain anything about the aliens’ background or what exactly it is they are here for. The whole scenario remains irritatingly ambiguous, preventing us from ever actually caring about what happens on screen. The film’s set-up fits a Saturday Night Live sketch better than a full-length movie.

I have seen far worse comedies about aliens from outer space. What Planet Are You From? at least manages to keep us from squirming in our seats even if it never realizes its ambitions of involving our emotions. Garry Shandling, in his first movie since completing his Larry Sanders Show stint on HBO, looks promising for a lively big-screen career. And Mike Nichols, who is revered for making comedies with a compelling human side has made a movie that barely skims the surface when it needed so desperately to dig a little deeper.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

Snitch

Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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