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WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM

It’s about sex. But it isn’t really.

Strewn throughout Mike Nichols’s direction of Garry Shandling’s wacky laughfest about an alien’s mission to impregnate an Earth woman is a surprisingly human tale of love and marriage. Well, half human is more accurate.

Mr. Shandling, who co-authored the script with Michael Leeson, stars as H-8R311, a perfect example of his planet’s race of advanced beings. Like his brethren, the wiles of evolution have bred the emotion out of him. And that’s not all he’s missing. Yup, you guessed it.

So the question is, what’s a civilisation on the verge of oblivion to do? Mr. Darwin forgot to leave instructions on just how a culture is supposed to procreate once the quest for perfection has cultivated them into eunuchs. The answer, per planet leader Graydon’s (Ben Kingsley) world-dominating plan, is to find a conveniently inferior species to gestate your offspring and then just send your best, er, man.

Tag…we’re it!

But first, there is training, wherein the film’s satirical mandate for poking wicked fun at both genders is inaugurated. All the planet’s possible candidates must learn the nuances and subtleties of women by conversing with a hologram housewife arrayed in purplish silver hair and pink lipstick. “Make like you are interested in what she is saying by responding, ‘Uh, huh’ after each statement,” instructs Graydon. “Compliment her on her hair and footwear,” he adds.

Following an extensive screening, H-8 gets the nod to go down to Earth and save his race. Adopting Harold Anderson as his Earth name, the surreptitious invader will work as a mortgage loan officer. He is to find a suitable partner, make her the mother of his child, wait the required time, and then return home with the resultant offspring.

Naturally, or rather, unnaturally, he is fitted with the missing equipment so necessary to the mission. Problem is, in a running gag that literally keeps on running, under amorous circumstances the prosthesis in question makes whirring noises like a Waring blender. “What’s that sound?” asks a disconcerted flight attendant (Samantha Smith) during one of the alien’s botched attempts to complete his assignment.

The mixture of such adolescent ribaldry with equal portions of heart-warming truths creates an ingratiating synergism that neither element could achieve alone. But what really makes the combination of lowbrow humour and high-principled lampoonery work is a stunningly intuitive interpretation by Annette Bening. She holds it all together. While Miss Bening will doubtfully gain the kudos here that she received for her obsessed real estate lady in American Beauty, this amazing performance alone is worth the price of admission.

She is Susan, a reformed alcoholic whose claim to fame is a long history of picking the wrong man. And that irony is not lost on the viewer when, cruising AA meetings to meet vulnerable women at the suggestion of caddish co-worker Perry (Greg Kinnear), Shandling’s extraterrestrial decides on Susan as the means to his assigned end. The curious courtship ensues in classical farce fashion. The zingers and retorts fly. But while the trajectory of the relationship is never too difficult to anticipate, the comic chemistry created by Miss Bening and Mr. Shandling allows for an astute mini thesis on opposites attracting.

It’s all an old ploy, a popular science fiction paranoia that probably dates back to tribal man’s fear of having his women ravaged by a stronger adversary. Shandling’s variation on the theme serves as a multipurpose send-up, merrily satirising the sci-fi genre as well as the mating game. And while Mr. Nichols’s handling of the material may not be as polished as we’d expect from somebody with such an esteemed body of work (The Graduate, Catch-22), What Planet Are You From? is an unquestionable treat in any solar system.

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