The Jokes Are at Crotch Level, the Laughs Come Hard

Mike Nichols’ What Planet Are You From? , from a screenplay by Garry Shandling, Michael Leeson, Ed Solomon and Peter Tolan, based on a story by Mr. Shandling and Mr. Leeson, fails to get enough laughs to justify the miscasting of Mr. Shandling as an alien sent earthward to impregnate a woman as the first step of a devious plan to conquer our planet. The coldblooded side of this character is child’s play for Mr. Shandling, but when he falls humanly in love with his intended one-night stand, Mr. Shandling cannot make a convincing lead. This raises a delicate issue of responsibility for this gaffe inasmuch as Mr. Shandling is co-producer, co-scenarist and, probably, the creative force behind the whole project. How do you tell the big enchilada himself that he should have picked an actor with a face less perpetually sour than Mr. Shandling’s?

Don’t get me wrong. This same face was put to hilarious use in the fondly remembered Larry Sanders Show on HBO. It is a face that always expected the worst from people, and always got it. Mr. Shandling’s impeccable stand-up-comic timing took care of the rest. The difference here is that whereas The Larry Sanders Show never went soft, What Planet Are You From ? ends up as a slobbering story about a baby, much like The Next Best Thing , another would-be cutting-edge satire that degenerated into a sudsy sitcom.

At one point in Planet , Annette Bening’s recovered alcoholic real estate agent Susan actually asks Mr. Shandling’s oddly amorous alien posing as an earthling bank officer named Harold Anderson, “What planet are you from?” Susan is, of course, thinking of the currently fashionable Mars-Venus dichotomy distinguishing and separating men and women. As it happens, Harold is from a planet far beyond Mars and even farther from Venus. That is to say, the planet is populated exclusively by highly evolved, clone-created males without emotions or sex lives. Worse still, they all dress alike in monotonously black outfits that when assembled in such seemingly monolithic conformity make the nightmare world of George Orwell’s 1984 look like the flowering of the Florentine Renaissance.

Mr. Nichols tries valiantly to wring every titter out of what is very often a markedly mean-spirited script about lechery and treachery on our dirty-minded planet functioning mainly on the crotch level. Hence, Harold is endowed with a member that makes noises like an out-of-control coffee grinder when it is aroused. These days, we are all becoming connoisseurs of crotch jokes, and the ones here would get louder guffaws if all the characters were teenagers and the audience was even younger. Harold sets the faux-naïf smutty tone with his outrageously crude pickup lines and a ritualized “uh-huh” response to everything the woman says to show that he is listening. He gets off to a promising start in an encounter with a weepy chatterbox played by Janeane Garofalo in a cameo bit reminiscent of her sassy imperturbability on the aforementioned Larry Sanders Show . But once Harold gets down to earth, he gets less and less mileage out of being summarily rejected by members of the opposite sex. Unfortunately for Mr. Shandling, Buster Keaton more than a half-century ago took out the comic patent on being dissed by women through a variety of ingenious methods, in Seven Chances (1925).

Likewise, Mr. Nichols and his colleagues have mistakenly gone into too much outlandish detail about the modus operandi of the clone colony led by Ben Kingsley’s steely-eyed Graydon, whom we are gradually conditioned to dislike enough to enjoy seeing him killed. The first time we see how the clone invaders get here from there and back, the process seems unduly complicated and needlessly gimmicky for a race of technologically advanced beings. But when the process is repeated again and again, it becomes too tedious to evoke even a faint chuckle. Unfortunately, the involvement of commercial air travel in the clone incursions leads to a painfully humorless subplot that wastes the talents of John Goodman as an aviation inspector on the lookout for post-Roswell aliens; he loses his job and nagging wife (Caroline Aaron) in the process.

Meanwhile, Harold illogically gets caught up in the great American rat race at the bank where he has fraudulently presented himself as a wizard of his trade, and is on the verge of being made a vice president before he is shamefully betrayed by a bank colleague pretending to be his best friend. Greg Kinnear plays this wretch, named Perry Gordon, with a villainous gusto matched by his equally predatory wife, Helen, played with femme fatale efficiency by luscious Linda Fiorentino. Judy Greer is good, too, as Harold’s wacky first “conquest.” However, ultimately there is only one reason to see What Planet Are You From? , and that reason is Ms. Bening, whom I would vote for as best actress of the year if I were a member of the Motion Picture Academy.

Ms. Bening has done it again, this time in an inferior film and opposite an inferior leading man. Her tone-deaf rendition of “High Hopes” when she announces she is pregnant is one of the most enchanting bursts of joyously exuberant feeling I have seen in years, almost on a par with that exquisitely erotic moment when she walks out of Michael Douglas’ bathroom wearing a man’s shirt and little else in Rob Reiner’s The American President (1995). It’s all in the eyes, and the curve of the lips. One recalls how terrific she has been in just about everything she has done in the past dozen years, and one wonders why she has not become one of our most sought-after stars. Perhaps this year’s Oscars will mark her big breakthrough. It is about time.

From Israel, War and Turmoil

The 16th Israel Film Festival 2000 in New York, with a roster of close to 40 feature films, documentaries, made-for-television movies, miniseries and student shorts, ends March 9. From this impressive list, I managed to see only two features, each moderately interesting in its way, and both oddly exotic in that Israel is both so near to our political and cultural consciousness and yet so far away in its visual and sociological immediacy. Arik Kaplun’s Yana’s Friends , from a screenplay by Mr. Kaplun and Simeon Vinokur, is described in the program notes as “a story about Russian immigrants who land in the brave new world of Tel Aviv during the Gulf War. One million new Russian immigrants arrived in Israel, strangers in a country with a population of only 4 million. This absurd situation was compounded by Saddam Hussein’s threat to utilize chemical weapons against Israel. Outfitted with gas masks, the immigrants found themselves scurrying in and out of hermetically sealed safe rooms. Strange things happened in these rooms during the weeks of war.”

Strange things indeed: For Yana (Evelyne Kaplun), the pregnant and abandoned Russian immigrant heroine, hers is a relentless struggle to return to Russia, past all the government bureaucracies in her way. She eventually decides to have an abortion, and it is not treated as a big deal. She is courted after a fashion by Eli (Nir Levi), an Israeli wedding photographer who intends to go to film school in New York. In fact, most of the characters in the movie are trying to escape Israel in one direction or another. The rest of the stories are too complicated to synopsize. They involve a Russian immigrant family whose only income comes from a completely paralyzed stroke-victim grandfather, who is placed on a sidewalk next to a cafe and left to solicit contributions to his empty hat without his seeming aware of his surroundings. There he comes unknowingly into competition with an unemployed musician who plays an accordion for the public’s coins of appreciation. The movie goes on and on with this bizarre rivalry that leads to a film-ending surprise revelation.

Meanwhile, Yana and Eli continue their romance all through several Iraqi Scud attacks in which they make love while wearing gas masks, which perversely serve as virtual aphrodisiacs. I must confess I haven’t seen anything so strange since Madeleine Carroll and Fred MacMurray staged their climactic clinch while wearing gas masks in Edward H. Griffith’s One Night in Lisbon (1941), an absurdity that elicited an outraged reaction from the late C.A. Lejeune of the London Observer. I am reminded also of George Orwell’s getting the idea for the pig-led Stalinist community in Animal Farm from his having witnessed a procession of children in snout-heavy gas masks engaged in an air raid drill just before the war.

Yitzhak Rubin’s White Lies is based on the simpler premise of a paranoid Israeli playwright returning from a failed career in Paris to care for his dying mother. Orna Porat as the mother and Sharon Alexander as the son carry most of the movie, and their intense relationship is far and away the best thing in it. Flashbacks to the son’s lost love and failed career in Paris are rendered in distractingly awkward English dialogue that is mostly mumbled incoherently. But, as with Yanna’s Friends , strong feelings emerge despite or because of a chaotic narrative.

The most breathtaking moments in White Lies occur when the mother reminisces calmly about her encounters with Doctor Mengele in the cauldron of the Holocaust. No wonder the son commits himself to an asylum after his mother’s death. Jean Renoir once remarked that no American is an American and nothing else. I suspect that the same can now be said about Israel and its maddeningly increasing diversity.