There are great films; some of them win Oscars. There are truly bad films; some of them attract cult followings. Then there are mediocre films. And What Planet Are You From? is mediocrity at its most bland.
The film opens on a planet inhabited by beings that have the outward appearance of men but who are actually devoid of sex, that is, sexual organs or sexual drive. They are also without emotion. The leader of these aliens (Ben Kingsley) has plans to take over earth (and revitalize his own withering race) by impregnating one of its women. The first scenes show thousands of the men-like aliens learning lessons about earth women, how to approach, seduce, and indeed, penetrate them. According to these lessons, there are three things you need to know in order to be successful with a female human. First, you have listen and respond appropriately to whatever she says: nod your head and say, “Uh-huh.” Second, you have to flatter her shoes and hairstyle, which should pretty much lead to sex. The third and final step is to manipulate her erogenous zones and “hey presto,” a child is made.
This mass education scene is obnoxious and mildly offensive, like all racist or sexist jokes that bolster the teller’s ego by belittling others. But on reflection, the scene is almost a relief, since the rest of the movie mostly left me comatose. The humor, what there is of it, is adolescent. The film has one recurring joke, about a prosthetic penis attached to the chosen emissary, Alien H-1449 (Garry Shandling) that whirrs when stimulated. Now, the gag has great potential for humor, but it’s never realized. Instead, the same basic joke whirring is repeated over and over. In a word, What Planet Are You From? is phallocentric.
Written by Gary Shandling and Michael Leeson and directed by Mike Nichols, the film assumes the patriarchal notion that men take action (pursue women, for instance), and women are the objects of their actions. There may be a related presumption in the fact that when H-1449 arrives on earth, he poses as a junior bank executive named Harold Anderson, as bank executives are hardly known for being action-oriented. Still, there is a small bit when H-1449/Harold makes his entry into earth’s atmosphere via an in-flight aircraft, an entry that is none too smooth for the passengers, causing them to be tossed violently around the plane. The unexplained turbulence attracts the attention of Federal Aviation Agent investigator Roland Jones (John Goodman), who gets very excited when his life of tedious, go-nowhere inquiry finally uncovers something bizarre. Soon he’s hot on Anderson’s trail, suspecting that he has, at last, found an honest-to-God extra-terrestrial.
Meanwhile, Anderson is befriended by a banking colleague, Perry Gordon (Greg Kinnear), who offers to show him the town, and how best to get laid. Enter the whirring penis jokes. One of Gordon’s favorite pick-up sites an AA meeting is where Anderson meets Susan (Annette Bening), a likely vessel for the gestation of his alien offspring. Anderson puts all his efforts into wooing her: he compliments her hair and shoes. They get married, have non-stop sex, but don’t immediately conceive. Finally, the seed is sown, as announced in a very eye-catching manner, when Susan sings “High Hopes” for her approving husband.
At this point, the one-note penis-joke “plot” fades out, and we’re into a romantic comedy, as our alien hero discovers that there’s so much more to earth and its women than was covered by the glib instruction he received back home. The film is directed by Mike Nichols, who has enjoyed his share of fame, winning an Oscar for The Graduate (1967), and nominations for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Silkwood (1983), and Working Girl (1988). The past decade, however, has not been so great for Nichols, as his output has included less than stellar films like The Birdcage (1996), and Primary Colors (1988). None of these films rise much above the obvious and inconsequential. Still, What Planet Are You From? is a new low: if it’s not rock bottom mediocrity, it sure feels close.