Low Comedy Highs

Garry Shandling is poignant and hilarious as an alien stud in What Planet Are You From? 

What Planet Are You From?
Directed by Mike Nichols
Columbia Pictures

Drowning Mona
Directed by Nick Gomez
Destination Films


Directed by Soren Kragh-Jacobsen

Sony Classics

This week I saw a low comedy I enjoyed hugely, What Planet Are You From?, and a low comedy I enjoyed mildly, Drowning Mona. I state these opinions so plainly at the outset because both pictures have been slammed by critics and seem destined to go the way of the last low comedy I liked, Gun Shy. This must be my new specialty, championing flop comedies! But what else can I do? Farce and slapstick are the most exhilarating tools an artist has for demonstrating that the world is a miserable place and communication between human beings is practically impossible. Throw in some penis or fart jokes and a happy ending—often a marriage—and you have a jolly night out. I don’t ask for consistency. I do ask for actors with the courage to plumb their deepest emotions and the wit to stylize them. Give me, in What Planet Are You From?, Annette Bening clutching a positive pregnancy test while singing “High Hopes” in an exuberant quaver, or alien Garry Shandling laboring to make sexy cow eyes at a comely mating prospect while his mechanical phallus hums like an overtaxed hard drive. Give me sublimely silly bits with a strong metaphorical undertow, and I’ll look past all the lame gags and messy stretches. 

That’s not to say that What Planet Are You From? has no focus: Its subtext is so close to the surface that at times it peeks out and winks at you. The film’s hero and heroine are literally of different species—like John Gray’s Mars and Venus if they actually came from Mars and Venus. The man hails from a distant world of cerebral, sexually neutered males, from whom he has been selected to impregnate an Earth woman as the first step in conquering the planet. It’s a given in this sort of romantic comedy that he’ll be “humanized” by love and his mission compromised, but along the way Shandling (who wrote the screenplay with Michael Leeson, Ed Solomon, and Peter Toland) conjures up a bleak sexual landscape of empty come-ons and hollow postures existing side by side with an imperative to mate. As Shandling’s “Harold Anderson” hurries after assorted young women blurting supposedly sure-fire seduction lines and slapping at his malfunctioning crotch, he’s like something out of a James Toback fever dream—an anti-pickup artist.

Possibly Shandling is too repellent for comfort—I know women who have a hard time looking at him as a romantic lead. Those blowfish lips turn his mouth into a daunting, Cronenbergian orifice, and he smiles like a man attempting to enjoy a glass of rat poison. Probably the movie would have a different, wider appeal if its hero and heroine had a great sexy vibe and really discovered each other in the sack. But so much of its poignancy—and hilarity—is rooted in Shandling’s squeamish estrangement from the human race. The movie takes its clammy melancholy from him, while Mike Nichols gives it some spring. This doesn’t feel like a “real” Nichols film, which I mean as a compliment. It doesn’t have those sociological-hustler stabs at profundity—it’s more like a smutty vaudeville act with pockets of gloom. After Harold has finally impregnated his wife, he loses interest in her, becoming slack and morose, constitutionally incapable of even trying to make contact. In the movie’s best scene—it’s both funny and depressing—he fingers the TV remote as if he has spent his whole life in suburbia. He doesn’t look at his wife when she talks to him: He’s practically human.

The biggest reason that the scene plays so beautifully is Bening, who kicks What Planet Are You From? into a different class. There isn’t a comic actress in her league right now, and maybe no actress of any sort with her kind of concentration. Bening has a way of filling in every millisecond, of making her characters so transparent that you can see the psychological origin of every tic—every sideways glance or nervous pat of the hair or clearing of the throat. Her Susan is a 40-ish hard-luck gal whose drunken liaisons have finally landed her in Alcoholics Anonymous, and she’s so discombobulated that she has to give herself pep talks just to walk across a room. But she isn’t a doomed waif: Those pep talks are smart and funny and slightly enchanted. It’s heartbreaking the way Harold gets past her defenses: He tells her he wants to sleep with her to make a baby, and she doesn’t understand he has an extraterrestrial-breeder agenda; she thinks he’s that rare man with a longing for commitment. The emotional hook of the movie becomes our not wanting to see her illusions dashed but waiting for the sky to fall.

It’s too bad Shandling and his writers didn’t give the supporting cast more juicy stuff, the way they did on The Larry SandersShow: That would have taken some pressure off the star to be a fount of charisma. As the leader of the alien planet, Ben Kingsley enunciates crisply, like Patrick Stewart on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but never gets to show another side. There’s mercifully little of Greg Kinnear as a smarmy Toback stand-in, but I’d have loved more of Linda Fiorentino, who makes a show-stoppingly sultry entrance in a clingy, see-through white dress and then has nowhere to go. Judy Greer has a couple of winning scenes as a dizzy flight attendant. As the FAA agent who dogs Harold, John Goodman shows off his usual crack timing, but Goodman has put on what even for him looks like a lot of weight, and his pallor is alarming. It’s hard to laugh at a cardiologist’s worst nightmare. Intervention?

Drowning Mona opens with Bette Midler stomping out of a white-trash domicile with a puffy face and a rat’s nest of bleached-dry hair. What a relief after Isn’t She Great to see her out of her icky glamour mode—with a vengeance. She gets into a car, slams the door, and heads out onto the road, where at the first big turn she finds she has no brakes and goes sailing off a cliff into the water. End of Mona Dearly: great beginning of Drowning Mona

E arly on we get the drift that there’s no one in her town who’s sad to see her dead—she was such a hellacious bitch that the challenge is finding someone who didn’t have a motive to kill her. The whodunit gets solved in a roundabout way, but the movie doesn’t deliver on its promise: It doesn’t make Mona, who shows up in flashbacks, ever more entertainingly monstrous, so that her death has a kind of Dickensian inevitability. And Midler never has a scene that tops her first. The movie is a long anticlimax, a 90-minute petering out.

That said, I laughed all the way through it and didn’t leave as pissed-off as the rest of the audience. The picture, written by Peter Steinfeld and directed by Nick Gomez, has an agreeable shambling quality: It reminded me of Jamie Harrison’ s entertaining Blue Deer mystery novels, which are set in Montana, feature a somewhat lackadaisical sheriff, and explore murders in the context of other mundane crimes and misdemeanors. Here the sheriff is Danny DeVito, who has real authority in a low-key performance—he’s funnier as a straight man than as a freaky spark plug. And the cast is treasurable: Jamie Lee Curtis as a coolheaded waitress; William Fichtner as Mona’s glassy-eyed, subterranean husband, with sideburns left over from the ‘70s; Neve Campbell as a soon-to-be-bride with wedding tunnel vision; Casey Affleck as her halting, apologetic, near-albino intended; and Kathleen Wilhoite as a lesbian mechanic who strums a guitar and warbles an ode to the departed “Mona D-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-dearly.”

The script plays goofy games, stopping the action for Tarantino-style small talk; piling on alternate, Rashomon-style flashbacks; and divulging its characters’ secrets in no particular order. My favorite line was when Mona’s widower and son (Marcus Thomas) give up on her ill-attended wake and troop over to the diner. “Are those pies fresh over there?” asks the son. “No,” says the waitress. And that’s it.

Better a 12-hour Drowning Mona than the two-hour Mifune, one of the most highly touted films from the Danish Dogma collective. It’s another case of fresh technique (mandated by the “vow of chastity”) and material so utterly conventional that you can predict every plot turn after the first half-hour and spend the rest of the time recasting the parts in your head with Hollywood actors like Matt Damon and Julia Roberts. The movie starts with its protagonist, Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen), being toasted at his wedding by his rich boss/father-in-law, who speaks of the young man showing up in Copenhagen with “no family and no past but enormous drive.” So you know by the end he’ll be back with his rural family (principally a mentally handicapped, Rain Man-style brother), reconciled to his barnyard past, and minus his shallow drive—and minus, too, the rich-bitch wife who makes crude animal noises during sex. The movie has one novel twist. It telegraphs a Straw Dogs-like climax in which a band of leering hicks will sexually assault the noble prostitute (Iben Hjejle) who has taken refuge on Kresten’s farm. We get that, of course, but we also get a sexual assault on Kresten by a band of raging feminist prostitutes. That’s progress: equal-opportunity gang-banging.