Let’s start with an open-ended question. What is a movie that would not be made today? Many answers come to mind for many reasons. Some answers mourn the lost potential of good movies that won’t be made in the current era of Hollywood. Big-budget action flicks like Alita: Battle Angel or Mortal Engines are harder to get green-lit in the era of formulaic Marvel movies. Original sci-fi movies like Annihilation, Arrival, or Ad Astra (so many As!) take a backseat to monster movies, Transformer movies, and ALL THE SEQUELS (Terminator, Jurassic Park, Alien, etc).
Other answers reflect cultural changes that make old movies non-PC. Rom coms with problematic relational dynamics are out, like Sandra Bullock’s pretend engagement to a comatose man in While You Were Sleeping or Tom Hanks’s dishonest courting of Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. In a similar vein, comedies using racist humor (i.e., Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Blazing Saddles), fat-shaming (i.e., Shallow Hal or Heavyweights), or crude humor & outdated gender stereotypes (i.e., all the Farrelly brothers’ movies) either wouldn’t be made today or the humor would be updated for a modern audience (i.e., all of Judd Apatow’s movies).
To my great displeasure, What Planet Are You From? firmly belongs in this last category. Centered around an alien coming to earth to procreate, the movie is filled with penis jokes and men boasting about shagging women. It truly is a movie that deserves to be forgotten…except for one thing. Annette Bening absolutely acts her heart out, seemingly ignorant of the dumpster fire that is the movie around her (like Ewan McGregor in the Star Wars prequels). At one point, she busts into a magnificent song & dance and, at another point, she becomes an awesome alien hologram. Someone should re-cut What Planet Are You From? with just her scenes and then hack streaming services so this is what plays when you rent the movie. (Side note: Annette was fresh off her role in American Beauty, another movie that certainly wouldn’t be made today).
What Planet Are You From? (2000)
On paper, this movie should’ve been dope. It’s directed by Mike Nichols, who helmed classics like The Graduate and Catch-22. Its star-studded cast includes Garry Shandling, Annette Bening, John Goodman, Greg Kinnear, Ben Kingsley, Richard Jenkins, and Judy Greer. And user reviews on IMDB start with headlines like “criminally underrated,” “misunderstood film,” and “funny interplanetary sex farce.”
But the moment you know this film is terrible is immediately. It opens with a screen crawl of text set to a starry background (clearly spoofing Star Wars). Yet the text is weirdly cropped to only be on the top half of the screen and has unnecessary voice over. Additionally, the text establishes an unintelligible premise. An all-male alien planet is hundreds of years ahead of earth technologically and predicts earth will soon discover them. To preempt this and dominate earth, leader Ben Kingsley sends alien Garry Shandling to earth to impregnate a woman and bring back the baby. How this achieves world domination or why more aliens aren’t sent is unclear. Also, Garry’s alien penis makes a mechanical whirring sound when aroused and this joke is played to freaking death throughout the movie.
So…Garry arrives on earth and–after complementing women on (A) their shoes and (B) their scent–immediately asks for intercourse. After failed attempts with a stripper and airline attendant Judy Greer, he meets Annette at an alcoholic anonymous meeting. She’s rebuilding her life and refuses to have sex until getting married. So she and Garry immediately wed and shag. Annette gets pregnant, but during her alien-accelerated three month pregnancy Garry develops human feelings. Even so, the baby is born and he takes it back to his planet. Two days later he regrets his decision, re-kidnaps the baby, and returns it to Annette. He reveals his true identity and Annette gives him a second chance. Roll credits on my shortest plot summary ever.
I guess there are a few other things I should discuss. First, Garry has no acting range since he’s a writer by trade. This occasionally works in his favor, particularly with humor based on his inability as an alien to read social cues (i.e., he obsesses over a broken TV remote and Annette tells him to “just go fix it” instead of shopping with her for a crib and he interprets it literally). But Garry’s lack of range mostly results in an unfunny movie.
Second, John Goodman is a member of the Federal Aviation Authority who starts tracking Garry after he arrives on earth by suddenly appearing on an airplane. Most of John’s screen time involves him spying on Garry and convincing his wife that he’s “found an alien!” He’s not bad but he’s also not particularly good…until the movie’s climax. John has lost both his wife and job due to his obsessive quest, but still spies on Garry as he reveals his identity to Annette. John approaches Garry but–since he’s now unemployed–is simply giddy with excitement that his suspicions are confirmed and Garry can prove to John’s wife he’s an alien. It’s not top-notch John Goodman, but it’s a fun energy.
Third, Garry works at a bank and Greg Kinnear is his super sleazy coworker. Greg is married, but regularly has sex with the office manager in the vault. He frequents strip clubs and AA meetings (to pick up desperate women)–and brings Garry to both venues to meet women. Greg’s lack of morals extend to the workplace, where he steals Garry’s third quarter report and presents it as his own to receive a promotion. This is Greg’s sleaziest role and I did not like it.
Lothario Greg’s Goatee
The best thing I can say about Greg’s role is that he sports unique facial hair (a goatee) as part of his character’s image (sleaze)–and it’s some of his best on-screen facial hair to date. In The Matador, he sports a mustache to reflect his macho-like desire to take responsibility for his life. In Stuck In Love, he maintains a level of scruff fitting for a character who’s…well…stuck in love. In Phil, he grows a full beard as part of his Greek image. In Brigsby Bear he repurposes a goatee for a nerdy detective look. In Murder of a Cat he sports a terrible mustache that we shan’t speak of again. Greg’s facial hair will certainly be another chapter in my book, complete with inspired hand drawings. Maybe I favor Greg with goatees but (sneak peak) my ranking of Greg’s movie facial hair is: Brigsby Bear > What Planet Are You From? > The Matador > Phil > Stuck in Love >> Murder of a Cat.
The second best thing I can say about Greg here is that he majored in broadcast journalism at the University of Arizona. Garry Shandling also graduated from the University of Arizona. And the earth-based action of What Planet Are You From? takes place in Phoenix. These Arizona connections could be coincidental, since Garry is from Tucson, co-wrote the screenplay, and graduated 13 years before Greg. But maybe they’re not coincidental and I really want to know (Google tells me nothing).
The third best thing I can say is that there was one Greg-centric scene that I liked. In it, Greg takes credit for Garry’s work to their boss (Richard Jenkins) to get a coveted promotion. He proceeds to tell lies about Garry (he’s lazy, he spent time in prison). As Greg does so, he starts talking faster as his eyes get bigger and his face adopts some excellent “can you believe this guy?” gestures. This scene shows off the smooth-talking, narcissistic behavior that will become a staple of many of Greg’s future roles, such as in Nurse Betty and The Convincer. I also liked this scene because Greg is selfish and cunning, but not sexually sleazy.
On that note, Greg has played a lot of despicable characters and excels in these roles. But these characters are often despicable for non-sexual reasons that are more palatable, played for more humor, or both. And he often gets what’s coming to him. Greg’s big ego in Mystery Men means he yells at his admirers even as they try to save him. Greg’s mommy-pleasing ruthlessness is upended by underdogs in Robots. Greg compensates for career inadequacies by strutting his stuff as an obnoxious youth baseball coach in Bad News Bears.
Greg is despicable for his sexual deviancy two other times (not counting the yet-to-be-watched Auto Focus). One of those movies (Someone Like You) is bad. The other (Ghost Town) is one of Greg’s best performances. This is because (A) Greg displays a wider acting range, (B) Greg’s scumminess plays well against Ricky Gervais’s wry humor, and (C) the movie maintains a central, sympathetic focus on Tea Leoni as the victim of Greg’s infidelities. What Planet are You From? goes the complete opposite direction. Nothing Greg says is funny, he just gets grosser, and his wife earns no viewer sympathy since she also pursues affairs.
- What Planet Are You From?, a “funny interplanetary sex farce” according to IMDB user FlickJunkie-2, is filled with robot penis jokes and men boasting about shagging women. It’s lewd, mostly unfunny, and outdated.
- Annette Bening’s excellent performance was starkly contrasted by Garry Shandling’s insipid performance. John Goodman was also a pretty good…man.
- Greg’s excellent goatee barely saves his performance from being a Kinnear Jeer. His character was a lewd lothario with no redemptive or sympathetic qualities.
- Next-up: Let’s cleanse our palette by watching Greg play a good man in Brian Banks.
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