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by: Scott Renshaw

I started to get a sense for how good What Planet Are You From? could be at around the fifth or sixth iteration of The Gag. It's the running gag that comes from the unique identity of its main character, an alien known on his home planet as H1449-6 (Garry Shandling) but tagged Harold Anderson for his mission on earth. Part of an emotionless all-male race that reproduces via cloning and has conquest of other worlds always on its mind, Harold is sent to our world to impregnate an earth woman, thus preparing the way for an invasion through alien progeny. Unfortunately, the men of this world have evolved without genitalia for lack of need, so Harold is equipped with an artificial organ -- one that hums when he is aroused.

As a gimmick, it's positively inspired, providing an auditory cue for every time Harold starts feeling a bit randy. It's also a gimmick that could have grown really old really fast, turning What Planet Are You From? into a one-joke movie without much to laugh at. I'm guessing that there are probably three dozen humming penis gags in What Planet Are You From? And I'll be damned if I didn't laugh at every one of them.

The reason the joke works for so long and with so many variations is that Shandling (who also co-wrote) and company realize that you can still write a smart comic script that happens to include some lowbrow subjects (he proved that point for several years on "The Larry Sanders Show." Part high-concept comedy, part broad farce and part exploration of male-female dynamics, it's actually a clever spin on relationship tomes like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and You Just Don't Understand. Plenty of sharp self-help comedy comes from Shandling's relationship with recovering alcoholic Susan (Annette Bening), and novice lover Harold's difficulties understanding his new compaion. Meanwhile, the supporting cast offers plenty of support: Greg Kinnear as Harold's sexually and professionally predatory co-worker; Ben Kingsley as the dead-serious leader of Harold's planet; and the ever-reliable John Goodman as an FAA investigator who may be on to Harold's identity.

I suppose you could say What Planet Are You From? is sort of an unruly film. Actually, it's a very unruly film, often leaping through sub-plots and minor characters too quickly to do them justice. Goodman's troubles with his wife, which might have made a marvelous counterpoint to the alien's relationship troubles, instead serve as the source for a couple of throwaway gags. Linda Fiorentino is woefully underused as Kinnear's femme fatale-ish wife, and there's a rushed feeling to all the scenes on Harold's home world (as though the budget wasn't quite there for a more thorough peek at their culture). For a film from Mike Nichols -- a director whose films almost always click with comic precision -- What Planet is a bit ragged and scattershot.

And it's also very, very funny. Films with laugh-out-loud moments are embarassingly rare, which makes it all the more wonderful that What Planet hits on so many levels of humor. The dialogue is full of the kind of razor-sharp punch lines that recall vintage Woody Allen. Subtle bits of physical acting add kick to the simplest scenes (watch for Shandling's priceless change of expression during his first date with Susan). Predictable sight gags are given unpredictable twists. A weird shift to a hard-boiled exchange between Shandling and Goodman adds an effectivley bizarre late change of pace. Even the warmer moments of gentle character humor work. But most of all, there's The Gag -- not necessarily because it inspires the biggest laughs, but because it inspires the most. What Planet Are You From? may be messy, but it sure is plenty entertaining. Shandling and his cohorts prove that exquisite execution can take even the silliest concepts and make them ... well, hum.

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