Ever since John Gray published his "Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What
You Want in Your Relationships," better known as 1992's "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus," people have used that catch phrase to describe the stereotypical differences in how men and women supposedly view sex and romance.
While not all members of either gender fall into those stereotypes, there's little doubt that there are basic differences between how men and women operate. Nor is there much doubt that the latest film on the subject, "What Planet Are You From?" tries to mine such material as a source for potential humor. While it's somewhat amusing at times, this essentially one-joke look at the human mating game isn't as funny as it could or should have been.
That's something of a surprise considering those involved with the picture as well as its general plot setup that usually provides the potential for a great deal of clever material. Featuring a generally well-known and accomplished cast and crew, the film follows the no longer novel, but still potential filled, alien-based "fish out of water" scenario. For those who may be visiting from another planet, such a set-up has previously been used in the TV shows "Mork and Mindy" and "3d Rock From the Sun," as well as films such as "Star Trek IV."
Any such stranded fish story (where a character arrives in a "foreign" land and interacts with its inhabitants and seemingly strange customs) is perfectly designed to poke fun at and/or make some sort of social commentary on the behavior, speech and everyday things the "locals" take for granted. When the "fish" are extraterrestrials, the entire human experience then becomes such a target.
Unfortunately, and despite a few amusing moments, director Mike Nichols ("Primary Colors," "The Graduate") and his team of screenwriters - including star Garry Shandling, Michael Leeson ("The War of the Roses," "I.Q."), Ed Solomon ("Men in Black," "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure") and Peter Tolan ("Analyze This," "My Fellow Americans") - only explore the sexual side of human life. To make matters worse, they don't even do that in as funny or an imaginative fashion as one might expect.
While the stereotypical gender differences are superficially explored, more substantive material and clever social commentary on the issue is shortchanged in favor of some running gags, including that of the protagonist's attached, but faulty phallus humming in direct relation to his state of arousal.
Although that provides for a few initial laughs, the filmmakers end up running the gag into the ground. Then there's the matter of pulsating jets of water at a Vegas hotel symbolically representing a wild weekend of honeymoon sex that makes one wonder when we'll see the usual rocket taking off, train going into a tunnel, or oil field equipment rhythmically pumping into the ground.
The film's funniest moments, though, occur early in the proceedings when the alien men are being taught about Earth women. The best involves an auditorium of them learning to mindlessly repeat "Uh-huh" to anything their computer-generated women says. The moment is quite funny and one only wishes that more of it were present. After that, however, the wit is pretty much sucked from the film faster than a vacuum in outer space.
Playing script doctor, I would have preferred to see more training, including the reviewing of intercepted TV signals for clues of how to interact with the Earthlings. Material such as soap operas, porno films or the Geena Davis film, "Earth Girls are Easy" would have been clever to include, as they obviously would have given the aliens incorrect information. I also kept waiting for Shandling's character to find John Gray's book and wonder if the title was the answer to his problems at succeeding.
I also would have changed the assigned occupation and location for the alien as the one used is neither that practical - from a literal viewpoint - or funny. If one was desirous to meet "receptive" women, a stint as a bartender, gynecologist or sex therapist - among many other possible vocations - would have made more sense than a commercial and home loan officer at a bank. While that setting allows for a coworker to participate in some bank vault hanky-panky, neither that nor any of the other related material is particularly funny, clever or imaginative.
Had the vocation and location been purposefully chosen by the alien leader due to a specific women being there, that would have made sense, but that certainly isn't the case here. If, for some reason, the filmmakers needed to stick with the bank theme, at least they could have created more obstacles for the alien - such as more handsome human men competing for the affection of the same woman.
In fact, it would have made more sense for the alien leader to send a small team of alien men - the smartest, most attractive and ambitious, etc. - to pursue, compete for and try to impress the woman in question, obviously trying to emulate the nature documentary broadcasts they also would have intercepted.
Part of the problem also lies with Garry Shandling and the way in which his character is written. While I'm no Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt (and thus can't throw appearance stones), is Shandling the best the alien race has to offer? While I thoroughly enjoyed his work in HBO's terrific, but now defunct "The Larry Sanders Show" (as well as the earlier "It's Garry Shandling's Show"), Shandling's acting style (looking smug and/or squinting as if constipated) is somewhat limited.
While the actor and filmmakers obviously had two directions in which to play his character - either an arrogant, superior position alien who gets his comeuppance for his attitude or a more innocent one (something like an early Tom Hanks could have played) who bumbles his way through his assignment - the style they chose here has its limits and prevents the film from being as funny as it could.
Supporting performances are generally okay, with the terrific Annette Bening ("American Beauty," "The American President") getting a funny, insiders' bit when she tells Shandling's character not to laugh when she states that she's a real estate agent (the same occupation she held in "Beauty").
John Goodman ("Bringing out the Dead," "Raising Arizona") exists in a "Men in Black" type subplot that doesn't really much for the proceedings, while Greg Kinnear ("As Good As It Gets," "Sabrina") is appropriately sleazy as Harold's adulterous coworker, but he similarly can't do much with his character. Meanwhile, Ben Kingsley ("Schindler's List," "Gandhi") and Linda Fiorentino ("Dogma," "Men in Black") are okay but appear in what amounts to just near cameo roles.
While the film is moderately amusing, it's hurt by the fact that it repeatedly plays its one-note sex joke into the ground without providing more substantive and clever material and/or laughs about the human experience (even the expected Viagra-related material never appears). The film's charismatic cast certainly makes the film easy enough to watch, but one constantly expects and wishes for the film to deliver more than it ultimately does. Unfortunately, it doesn't, and as such, "What Planet are You From?" rates as just a 4 out of 10.