Tragic Comedies

In Light Of The Moonstruck 'What Planet Are You From,' 'Drowning Mona' Is A Torrential Success.

THIS IS SUPPOSED to be the last official week of "dog season," the time of year when Hollywood lets loose its most-unlikely-to-succeed. Two new comedies show the vagaries of late-winter release: Drowning Mona, which doesn't live up to director Nick Gomez's promise (he helmed Laws of Gravity and is one of the creative forces behind HBO's The Sopranos), and What Planet Are You From?, which may have put the last nail in the coffin of erstwhile wunderkind Mike Nichols.

If you want to have a really bad time, I mean a really bad time, I'd suggest going to see What Planet Are You From?, which, thanks to a trick of the calendar, is the worst movie of the millennium. (To those nerds who think the millennium starts on January 1, 2001: Grow up.) I mean, this one is just appalling. Imagine, for starters, Garry Shandling as a romantic lead. Now here's the big joke: he's from outer space, and when he gets aroused his penis vibrates and hums. Woah, that is comedy. Seriously, while I was in the theater I actually shoved a hot needle up under my fingernail in an attempt to distract myself from the pain of watching this flick.

What's most astounding about Planet is how many reasonably respectable people allowed their names to appear on the credits: director Mike Nichols, writer/star Garry Shandling, co-stars Annette Benning and Ben Kingsley. If they'd had any sense of shame, the credits would have read, "Directed by John Doe; written by John Doe; starring John Doe, John Doe and John Doe."

If you must see a new comedy this weekend, you'd be better off checking out Drowning Mona, which, while it's a bit limp, is pretty much Citizen Kane when compared to What Planet Are You From?. Drowning Mona gets by with a few good laughs and some really endearing performances.

Casey Affleck is perfectly charming as bleach blonde Bobby Calzone, the nervous prime suspect in the titular drowning of the ironically named Mona Dearly. Although he doesn't have any great lines, his weird act has a sort of George W. Bush quality, combining cunning shiftiness with an "aw-shucks" ignorant innocence.

The premise of the film is that Mona Dearly is such a horrible person, when she's killed everyone in town is a suspect. Oddly, Mona is presented more as pathetic than horrible, and in spite of the three or four scenes wherein she's truly nasty, the one that sticks out is the one in which she loses a knife throwing contest. She has a fit, which I think was meant to show how awful she was, but the content of the fit is that she never wins anything, that just once she'd like to have people look at her with some admiration, and that her basic self-image has been damaged to the core by the bad opinions of others. It's really kind of touching, and Bette Midler does a good job creating a complex character out of what could have been a caricature. Still, what a film like this needs is lots of laughs, or a tight plot, and it's a bit weak on each count.

No where near as weak as What Planet Are You From?, a film in which almost nothing works: the premise is insipid (spaceman comes to Earth to impregnate a woman), the jokes sound like rejects from a bad Jerry Seinfeld routine, and every inch of it is trying so hard to be heartwarming that it's hard to even pay attention to the intensely trite dialogue.

It's also bizarrely inconsistent: Shandling, as the spaceman, can make knowing comments about little elements of American culture (on the order of "Did you ever notice that..."), and then suddenly be baffled by some ordinary bit of earthling behavior.

Benning's role is utterly demeaning: she's the earthwoman Shandling marries, and since he's only interested in having a child, her entire sense of self-worth revolves around her fertility. When she finally gets pregnant she sings a humiliating rendition of "High Hopes" for Shandling, and then tells him, "I'm pregnant, so now you won't leave me!"

That's just offensive in a bad way, which is pretty much what separates Planet from Mona. Mona is one of those movies that tries to be offensive, so it's actually funny when sleazy Jeff Dearly, Mona's son, upon being told the little girl he's flirting with is 13 years old, says, "Yeah, finally!"

Planet, on the other hand, is trying to be touching, which is tough to combine with a lot of bathroom and wee-wee humor. Ben Kingsley's character, for example, travels across interstellar distances by flushing himself down an airplane toilet. It's literally horrifying to see an actor of Kingsley's stature, opposite a comedian of Shandling's talent, doing potty jokes.

It's particularly odd in comparison to Drowning Mona, where scenes that should be creepy succeed in being funny. In What Planet Are You From?, scenes I'm sure were written with the finest intent of humor succeed only at making the viewer incredibly uncomfortable.

It's also particularly tragic that Planet was directed by Mike Nichols, who in the late '60s and early '70s was one of the bright stars of the Golden Age of American Cinema, directing such films as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge and Catch 22. If you want to see grown-up humor and actual insight, you're best off renting any of those films.

Drowning Mona is no great shakes, but attractive performances by Affleck, Danny DeVito and character actor William Fichtner as Mona's widower at least set it apart from What Planet Are You From? in making it not entirely unpleasant to view.

Drowning Mona is playing at Century El Con (202-3343), Century Gateway (792-9000), Century Park (620-0750) and Foothills (742-6174) cinemas.

What Planet Are You From? is playing at Century El Con (202-3343), Century Park (620-0750), El Dorado (745-6241) and Foothills (742-6174) cinemas.

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