Harold Anderson (Garry Shandling) is a visitor from a faraway, all-male, procreatively challenged planet. His mission on earth is to impregnate a woman and bring their offspring home for breeding purposes. To accomplish the task, he has been equipped with an artificial metal penis, which hums audibly when its interest is, shall we say, aroused. Why does it do that? Because "it doesn't know the words," snaps Linda Fiorentino, playing a woman immune to Harold's charms.
That's the best joke in What Planet Are You From? Considering the number of variations played on it, you might argue that it's the only one. Mostly, Shandling plays an overgrown adolescent of a familiar, earthbound sort. He's befuddled and inept as he attempts to comprehend the rules of the mating game.
In other words, he's the nerd from outer space. But Shandling--also one of the film's several writers--is not enough of an actor to make him a sympathetic one. Harold does not live life; he comments on it. And that plays into director Mike Nichols' supercilious side. The producers have employed good comic actors, among them Annette Bening, John Goodman and Greg Kinnear, in an effort to take the chill off. But most of the women Harold encounters are unfunnily damaged--timorous or frigid, frenzied or alcoholic--while the men are sexist, henpecked or just clueless.
The result is a movie that is at once smug and lazy, qualities fatal to comedy. And qualities increasingly prevalent in an era enervated by the ironic ideal. (Wouldn't it be ironic if irony destroyed our ability to make one another laugh?) At some point in What Planet Are You From? you start to wonder how these people acquired the air of unearned superiority that makes the movie seem so old and tired.
Irony is a mode unknown to Peter Steinfeld and Nick Gomez, respectively the writer and director of Drowning Mona. They take the citizens of Verplanck, N.Y., as they find them, which is to say none too bright. All you need to know about this small town is that it was once a test market for the Yugo, and most of the citizenry still happily get about in decrepit versions of that universally unloved car.
They are equally delighted when Bette Midler's title character is murdered in the film's first scene, for she was, as flashbacks reveal, crazy mean. Almost everyone--including Jamie Lee Curtis, Neve Campbell and Casey Affleck--has a motive for offing her, but mostly what police chief Danny DeVito's investigation reveals is a city-wide pattern of irredeemable obtuseness.
Gomez and Steinfeld aren't superior to this stupidity--nothing smug about them, partly because as virtual unknowns, they're eager to please. On the other hand, there's a definite limit to the number of moron jokes we can absorb in 100 minutes, and their movie exceeds it. These guys have a nice gift for sly, sidelong comic glances. One appreciates the Coke machine that stands, uncommented upon, in the middle of the funeral parlor. One would not entirely mind seeing the dinner-theater production of Oh! Calcutta! they casually mention. But they need to be as smart as they can be instead of as dumb as the dominant (or Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) comedy market will surely encourage them to be.