Comedy Oddities: What Planet Are You From?

I adore Garry Shandling, he’s one of my all time favourite human beings, and not just because of the sublime beauty of The Larry Sanders Show but also due to his stand up and his other tv series The Garry Shandling Show, while the superb Judd Apatow documentary The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling showed just why he was an endlessly fascinating human being. But it’s always frustrated me that after The Larry Sanders Show he retreated from the public eye, making this one film and then all but disappearing bar the odd cameo role.

Despite loving the man so much when the film was released it was heavily criticised and so not wanting to see one of my idols in something dodgy I didn’t catch it at the cinema, and then forgot about it’s existence for nineteen years, until it suddenly occurred to me that it was fucking mad I’d never seen the one film Shandling co-wrote. Also contributing to the script were Peter Tolan (a writer and producer on Larry Sanders), Ed Solomon (Of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Men In Black fame) and Michael Leeson (Creator of The Cosby Show, but also War of the Roses and The Tuxedo) while Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) directed it, and the cast included Annette Bening, John Goodman, Linda Fiorentino, Ben Kingsley and Judy Greer, so with that amount of talent on board surely it must be at least vaguely worthwhile, yeah?

Vaguely worthwhile is about the kindest thing I can say about it though, given the writers there are some funny lines and observations, but the whole thing is pretty bleak when it comes to it’s portrayal of sleazy men desperately trying to seduce anything with a pulse, and probably without one given how shitty they are. Shandling’s character can be explained as being a sex obsessed jerk as he’s an alien and it’s his mission to impregnate a woman, but the rest have no excuse. Women don’t come off much better either, the majority are sex objects and though Annette Bening’s a layered character it’s a fairly weakly written one, sometimes she seems witty and smart but at other times she’s almost bipolar when the character isn’t meant to be that way.

The plot’s a kind of fish out of water sex comedy with a dash of romance thrown in, where it turns out that somewhere out in the galaxy there’s a a planet of cloned men who are hellbent on dominating the universe, with Earth their next target. They plan to do this by impregnating a woman on Earth and slowly introducing their race in to the population, and Shandling is chosen as the best candidate to do such a task. Pretending to be a businessman called Harold Anderson as soon as he arrives (beaming on to a plane’s toilet for some unknown reason) he flirts outrageously with everyone he meets, as FAA investigator Roland Jones (John Goodman) slowly investigates the possibility that Shandling’s an alien.

The initial set up where head alien Graydon (Ben Kingsley) outlines their devious plan is strong, with lots of jokes about how women supposedly can be seduced with ease (“This is most easily achieved by repeating the phrase ‘Uh huh’ when the woman is communicating” being one of the better lines), but the moment he starts hitting on women it becomes fairly uneven. There’s some amusing jokes, the script was co-written by some very talented people after all, but also some pretty tiresome gags and the characterisation is all over the place. In some scenes Anderson seems to have a pretty savvy understanding of how humanity works but when it comes to women he’s a real twat, which is admittedly the movie’s main joke, this is essentially Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus the movie, but it just doesn’t make sense in certain scenes.

Even worse is Annette Bening’s Susan Hart, when she’s introduced giving a speech at an AA meeting she seems smart and self-aware, and when she’s hanging out with her group of friends she’s a well rounded character, but the moment she’s involved with Anderson she’s almost schizophrenic, clearly uninterested in settling down at one point as now that she’s sober she wants to sort her life out, but then after the most unconvincing justification ever seen in not only the history of cinema but also the written word she decides to marry him and pop out a baby.

Worst still is the direction, it’s workmanlike when it comes to most scenes but the film is poorly edited in places, and certain moments are just bizarre. Whenever Anderson wants to talk to Graydon he has to do so in an airplane’s toilet, but that’s not initially explained at all so one moment he’s arguing with Susan and the next he’s in the loo and we have no idea how he got there. There’s also a couple of subplots which don’t really go anywhere, one of which involves Greg Kinnear’s slimy Perry Gordon having affairs and going for a promotion at the place where Anderson works, and another which sees Roland Jones’ marriage fall apart as he becomes so obsessed with proving that Harold is an alien, I suppose it’s meant to add depth to these supporting characters but it’s poorly written and mundane stuff.

At the end of the film Graydon steals the baby and Anderson heads back to his home planet where he gives lectures to his fellow aliens about how to talk to women, where he realises how much he cares about Annette Bening and that his own race has kind of become pretty screwed up, but it feels rushed as up until this point there was nothing in the slightest to suggest that he had such emotions. For having such thoughts he’s sent off to have his mind wiped, though of course he manages to escape, grab his kid and head back to Earth because presumably they thought the film should have a happy ending, though it’s such an absurd denouement that it’s hard to care about what happens to any of the characters.

Dodgy plotting and inconsistent characterisation wouldn’t be a problem if the jokes always hit home but all too often they fail too and there’s a lot of pretty poor ones, the worst of which is a running joke about Anderson’s detachable penis vibrating every time he gets horny.  The women in the film rarely get to be funny at all which is a major problem, there’s an awful The Crying Game gag, and lots of painful sexism where it’s unsurprising the women are appalled by Anderson, but why the audience were supposed to find such repetitive scenes funny is a mystery I fear will never be solved.

In The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling there was a lot of discussion about how Garry wasn’t in a great place when he made the film and it’s well known that he and Mike Nichols clashed on the set on many an occasion, so that goes some way to explain why the film is such a mess. But even before filming began those involved should have realised that there were huge problems with the script that needed to be rectified, and despite liking a few elements the film’s so flawed that it can’t help but feel like a massive disappointment. This really shouldn’t have been the last big project that Shandling was involved with, and if you haven’t seen it I’d suggest not doing so as it does very slightly tarnish his legacy.

Alex Finch.
https://www.twitter.com/comedytowatch

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