In the unfunny new comedy What Planet Are You From?, directed by Mike Nichols and co-written by comedian Garry Shandling, the big joke is: What if men really were from Mars? The nominal punch line is that they’d have no penises — they‘d be dickless. In what should be the only starring film role of his career, Shandling plays an alien from an all-male planet of Kraftwerk clones whose intellectual prowess has obviated the need for reproductive organs but also driven them to the verge of extinction. Charged with impregnating an Earth woman in order to replenish his planet’s depleted DNA, and newly equipped with a whirring mechanical member, Shandling‘s extraterrestrial metamorphoses into Phoenix banker Harold Anderson, a boor who spends his first 15 terrestrial minutes sniffing under every skirt he passes.
The first part of the film finds Harold trolling for women with the line ”I like your shoes and you smell nice.“ The second half finds him rehearsing scenes from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, the self-help folly that probably instigated this mess. None of this is remotely funny, because while Harold is meant to be amusingly antediluvian, even charming, like a Friars Club fossil or the Playboy jokes page, he’s actually fairly repulsive. On his justly praised HBO series, The Larry Sanders Show, Shandling managed one of the most precarious of all balancing acts, persuasively embodying a very specific kind of male vanity even as he filleted it with precision. Here, though, with his rubbery wet leer and Palm Springs perma-tan blown up to fit the big screen, and cast adrift by Nichols‘ obvious neglect, Shandling comes off as a sleazebag — all that’s missing are the gold chains, tufted chest hair and English Leather.
With its cavalcade of bouncing female ass, the whole thing recalls nothing so much as A Guide for the Married Man, an ersatz comedy from 1967 in which Walter Matthau‘s suburbanite ogled his neighbor’s wife and helped prove just how stunningly clueless Hollywood could be. Thirty years later, the song remains the same: What were these people thinking? When faced with that leer, any sane woman would give Harold the brushoff, plunge into an abyss of self-doubt and -loathing, or, as one popular campus bumper sticker neatly puts it, ”Drink Until He‘s Cute.“ Either because of the star’s vanity, or Shandling and Nichols‘ mutually assured delusion, however, Harold manages not only to nail the bubble-blond flight attendant who initially rebuffs him, but to take a tumble with world-class hottie Linda Fiorentino and end up with none other than Warren Beatty’s wife.
As recovering alcoholic Susan Hart, Annette Bening slums her way through this installment of revenge of the nerds, dodging the soggy jokes and sitcom timing with her usual perky-pat professionalism. Although she has the unfortunate task of playing straight man to a shtick-up-man, and is forced to feign some humiliating sexual gymnastics with Shandling, Bening manages to deliver the only discernibly human performance. This is no small achievement in a film in which the main yuk is a humming dick, which is why it‘s a drag that the filmmakers have opted to shoot all of Bening’s close-ups ”soft.“ Each time the actor steps within five feet of the camera, it looks as if the room has gone suddenly foggy, or someone tossed gauze over the lens. The men who made this movie may think they‘re doing Bening a favor by not letting her look like a real person. What they don’t get is that she‘s the one who did them the favor when she pimped her talents for these dickless wonders.