What Planet Are You From?

What Planet Are You From is a sex farce directed by legendary director Mike Nichols about an alien named "Harold Anderson" who has been sent to Earth with the goal of impregnating an human female as quickly as possible. The exact reason why Anderson must do this is a little fuzzy - it has something to do with the head alien's master plan to take over our planet by outbreeding us on our home turf, but if you can make sense out of the logistics of his scheme then you are a smarter person than either me or my cat, since both of us were visibly confused by every scene that was set in outer space. (To be fair, the cat might have been confused less about the movie and more about why I was expecting her to answer unanswerable questions about something she was clearly not paying attention to.) 

However, the why of Harold's mission is less important than the how: Harold is under an intense time crunch and he has no understanding of our social mores, so his every attempt to get laid is mind-bogglingly direct and innuendo-free. He is basically a walking id - an undisguised pervert who is totally open about the fact that he is only interested in women in as much as he can have sex with them. Harold will meet a potential mate, hit on her immediately, get turned down immediately, and then without batting an eye he will rephrase his request like he was a small child who has learned that he can get a treat he hasn't earned  if he just annoys his parents long enough. His consistently clueless behavior is designed to parody your average bar-cruising male, and it totally works; regardless of your opinion about men before the movie starts you will be less of a fan of them by its end. 

Most of What Planet's middle act is devoted to comedy scenes which resemble real situations without too much embellishment, and the fact that there are real Harold Andersons out there kind of blurs the line between cringe humor that is funny and cringe humor that just makes you cringe. When I was focusing on what a remorseless dingbat Harold I thought the movie was funny; every time I found myself empathizing with his targets I found the film to be much less charming, because thinking about all the harassment that women have to deal with on a day to day basis is just infuriating. On the one hand, you have to give credit to What Planet for helping men like me empathize with the day to day other half of the human race; on the other hand, it is kind of problematic for the movie that this empathy undercuts all of its jokes.  

(That said: What Planet does make your average skirt-chaser look good in one regard - their fleshy penises have to be preferable to Harold's mechanical penises that makes a loud buzzing noise every time he gets aroused. Although the less said about Harold's whirring wang the better in my opinion; it just raises too many unanswered questions, like "why a ruthless would-be world conquering species with access to such advanced and intrusive semen deploying technology ask their invasion's point man to go around and get consent from their would-be targets instead of just taking them by force?" But again: that's not the point of this movie, which is meant to skewer America's sexual politics, not establish a realistic science fiction scenario.)

Obviously What Planet Are You From is a very uneven film, and most of that comes from it's script, which is trying to blend absurdist sci-fi with rom-com conventions in ways that don't always make sense. Still, I think this script could have worked with a better leading man in the Harold Anderson part. Unfortunately, here he is played by Garry Shandling, and while Shandling does have a certain wryness that grounds some of the story's goofier elements, his comedic persona is a little too understated for the role. Basically he just isn't charismatic or handsome enough to get us to root for Harold and the fact that when he acts like a creep he comes off as a creep is a big problem for a movie that ultimately wants to turn him into a respectable father. It is possible that American Psycho-era Christian Bale could have made this schizophrenic part really sing, because we might have been more likely to forgive Anderson for his trespasses if he looked more like a movie star and less like a weird uncle. Of course, that would be both a blessing and a curse, in that it would have made the movie more entertaining but possibly made it's message less clear.

Which actually gets to a big problem that sex-farces like this often face: their ability to teach us moral lessons is dependent in large part on their ability to titillate us in just the right way, and that often creates a conflict between their need to entertain and their desire to instruct. In the first half of this movie we are not supposed to identify with Harold - we are supposed to be entertained by his actions but understand that they are wrong. As the movie progresses Harold comes to know what love is and he slowly starts to see that women are more than meat, and as he evolves we are supposed to sympathize with his viewpoint more and more. Let's ignore how lazy that character arc is and let's ignore how much that unearned growth undermines our original conception of who Harold is. Instead, let's look at how the shift from laughing at Harold to laughing with Harold changes the film's moral. Does the fact that Harold's initial one night stand turned into a real relationship justify the unacceptable behavior he used to initiate that one night stand? Is this film's happy ending trying to tell us that his real problem was not that he had the goals of an asshole but that his initial clumsiness with words was making him out to be more of an asshole than he really was? It is good that What Planet wants to encourage men to grow past seeing women as mere sex objects, but the fact that all of Harold's emotional growth directly stems from the fact that he picked the right sexual partner at an AA meeting kind of reaffirms the idea that a woman's true power is her ability to provide men with [emotionally instructive] sex. I get what this movie is trying to do, but it doesn't sit completely right with me.

In many ways What Planet Are You From is a half baked meal, but it is that rare undercooked dish that actually made me hungry for dessert. That might sound a bit odd given how negative some parts of this review have been, but even if I was not consistently entertained by this film I can at least appreciate it for it's potential as a good conversation starter. In particular I would love to talk about this movie with feminist overtones with an actual female feminist because I'm curious as to how a woman would feel about Harold Anderson. Would they find him to be appropriately buffoonish? Is he too close to an unpleasant reality to be a joke? Does the film's humor ultimately convey the right point, or does it's collapse into genre convention at the end undermine it's basic argument? What Planet Are You From might not be perfect, but that doesn't mean it isn't interesting.

Winner: Me

What Planet Are You From on IMDB