'Planet,' 'Next' not out of this world

Comedies from big-name directors disappoint

Parenthood is at the heart of two new Hollywood comedies, "What Planet Are You From?" and "The Next Best Thing," but viewers interested in old-fashioned family values will have to wade through a lot of irreverent humor before they'll find a hint of what they're seeking.

What Planet Are You From? stars Garry Shandling as a denizen of a distant planet who's sent to Earth with orders to impregnate a woman so that his all-male race can spread to our corner of the galaxy.

Disguised as a mild-mannered banker, he sets about his task with grim determination, making a pass at every woman he sees. Most of them brush him right off, but then he meets an attractive real-estate broker who wants a child as much as he does. She marries him without guessing his secret mission, and eventually her honest feelings make him realize it's more fun to be an emotion-filled Earthling than an alien with more intellect than he knows what to do with.

Although it offers a few good laughs, the movie often seems like a second-rate parody of more original pictures - starting like a sexed-up "Star Trek" episode, then traveling through "Men in Black" territory, and detouring into "Rosemary's Baby" near the end.

Its best asset is its cast, including Annette Bening as the alien's wife, Ben Kingsley as the leader of his planet, and John Goodman as an investigator on his trail. Goodman gets most of the best lines, and his brilliant comic delivery helps the movie survive its overdoses of silliness and vulgarity.

Let's hope Mike Nichols agreed to direct this throwaway farce as a temporary break from the more meaningful fare ("The Graduate," "Primary Colors") that his admirers hope for when they see his name in the credits.

The Next Best Thing would have been a better thing if director John Schlesinger and writer Thomas Ropelewski had decided what kind of movie they wanted to make. It's a well-meaning picture, but its uneven story and scrambled emotions ultimately doom its good intentions.

Madonna plays Abbie, a not-quite-young woman who's afraid family life will pass her by if she doesn't have a child soon, but can't find the right man to settle down with. This concern becomes moot when she discovers she's pregnant after a one-night fling with her close friend Robert, a gay man who finds fatherhood quite agreeable once the little boy is born.

Their household is unconventional but contented until Abbie meets exactly the kind of man - handsome, successful, heterosexual - she'd longed for at the beginning of the story. She falls for him, and this is when the movie falls apart, trading its air of mischievous humor for trite sentimentality, arbitrary plot twists, and enough maudlin melodramatics to sustain a tabloid TV series.

It's starting to seem unlikely that Madonna will ever have a real movie career - even a rock 'n' roll superstar can have just so many false starts before the public gets suspicious - and after this crash-and-burn disaster she'd be well advised to stop trying, at least until a halfway decent script comes her way.

Rupert Everett fares even worse with the collection of clichs called Robert. Add a syrupy music score by Gabriel Yared, and you have one of the most disappointing movies of this disappointing season.

How regrettable to find Schlesinger, of "Billy Liar" and "Midnight Cowboy" fame, at the helm of a sinking ship like this.

*'What Planet Are You From?' has an R rating and contains sex, nudity, and four-letter language. 'The Next Best Thing,' rated PG-13, contains sex-related dialogue and adult situations.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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