Even author John Gray must be tired of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" jokes by now. On the other hand, we all pay attention to armchair psychology when the talk is about ourselves.
Comedian Garry Shandling invades Gray's turf -- the attitudinal differences between men and women -- in "What Planet Are You From?" and manages to wring a few more laughs from it. Not wisdom, mind you, just laughs.
Shandling's an acquired taste that many viewers may not have cultivated. The HBO star has been featured in a mere three movies to date ("Love Affair," "Mixed Nuts" and "The Night We Never Met"). Though he's already moved up to writing and producing chores with the new film, his faults as a performer -- including a narrow expressive range, lack of physicality and an irritating habit of smiling too much -- are still evident.
Thank heavens he has lots of help. Surrounded by a cast of Hollywood veterans and a director, Mike Nichols, who also started his career as a stand-up comic, Shandling is able to sustain his movie's thin premise well beyond sitcom length.
Shandling plays Harold, an interplanetary visitor who's on a mission to father a baby. (There's some claptrap about this task being required to save his planet, but don't expect it to follow any recognized rules of logic.) In clumsy pursuit of his goal, Harold employs his world's versions of the essentials of Earthly seduction: inane compliments, baseless promises and empty smiles.
He receives no protest from Perry Gordon (Greg Kinnear), a heartless seducer who guides him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to locate defenseless women. But when Harold zeroes in on the seemingly feather-headed Susan Hart (Annette Bening), he comes up against a full arsenal of feminine wiles and ways.
The interplay between Shandling and Bening is the heart of the movie, but other parts are vital, too: Kinnear's slimy self-aggrandizement, John Goodman's exaggerated directness as alien tracker Roland Jones and Ben Kingsley's authoritarian insistence as Graydon, Harold's supervisor back home.
The script neatly sets up two parallel realities, thus emphasizing Shandling's skills as a writer over his grace as an actor. Helming his vision is no great challenge for Nichols, whose early triumphs include "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Graduate." But he doesn't disrespect this bit of fluff, and he gives Shandling his best-ever framework to deliver material that, though not out of this world, is at least down to Earth.