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MARCH 6, 2000: 

What Planet Are You From?

If the goal of comedic cinema is to irritate, offend, and bore, then this film by Mike (The Graduate) Nichols is hilarious. Gary Shandling is an alien sent to Earth to impregnate a woman so that his breed can take over the universe. His detachable penis vibrates when he's aroused, and the humming noise provides the punch line for myriad insipid jokes. Ben Kingsley reaches the pinnacle of his career as the alien leader who travels to and from Earth by flushing himself down airplane toilets. The irony. And Annette Bening draws on her Oscar-nominated performance in American Beauty to play Susan, an agonizingly flaky real-estate agent who, desperate for companionship and a child, agrees to date -- and, two days later, to marry -- Shandling after he eyes her at an AA meeting. (Recovering alcoholics are vulnerable and easy to seduce. Funny, no?) The rest of the female population is portrayed as a collection of insecure nags and sex-crazed bitches who, for some inconceivable reason, find Shandling irresistible, and that results in numerous self-indulgent shots of his naked tan ass. After Bening finally gives birth to their son, Shandling undergoes the ever-predictable epiphany and transforms from unfeeling extraterrestrial to sensitive being with Hallmark-issue emotions. When I said "hilarious," I meant "utter crap." -- Jumana Farouky

The Closer You Get

For the lads of a sleepy Irish seaside town, America looms as the land of opportunity -- sexual opportunity, to be exact. And so, sodden with Guinness and sick with hope, they dash off a personal ad to the Miami Herald inviting "fit and sporty" Yankee babes to their annual St. Martha's Day dance. Immediately, their village turns topsy-turvy: with just a month to go before the big shindig, the men get makeovers, the women get crafty, and, in the process, everyone gets a wee bit smarter about love.

Backed by the producer of The Full Monty, first-time director Aileen Ritchie's precious but never preachy comedy falls steadfastly in line with the current vein of quaint and cuddly Irish cinema, so much so that a friend snickeringly re-dubbed it Wanking Ned Devine. But as familiar as the damp, velvety vistas and befuddled locals are, Ritchie's engaging ensemble -- in particular Ian Hart, Niamh Cusack, Cathleen Bradley, and Sean McGinley -- enlivens the sprightly tale. Amid the jolly humor and gentle insights about repression, resourcefulness, and romance, the darkest part of this winsome debut is the ale. -- Alicia Potter

My Dog Skip

It's nearly impossible to recall any film named for a dog in which the people are even half as memorable as the pooch -- think of Lassie Come Home, Old Yeller, Benji, Air Bud. But in this folksy, lemonade-sweet adaptation of Willie Morris's boyhood memoir, Frankie Muniz (of TV's Malcolm in the Middle) nimbly outshines his Alpo-scarfing co-star. With a face reminiscent of an "Our Gang" scamp, Muniz nails a range of tissue-tearing scenes as Willie, a bookish runt who learns a lifetime of lessons from his Jack Russell terrier.

The education of first-time director Jay Russell (no relation) isn't as complete. Although he gamely achieves genuine family entertainment -- the film never gets too cute or condescending -- Russell can't resist sentimentalizing Skip's every pant and whimper with a swell of strings. In addition, Morris's episodic retelling of life in 1940s Mississippi turns from spirited to sluggish here, and Skip's Solomon-like wisdom grows harder to swallow. Instead, it's the heartfelt emotion of the boy and his parents -- the quietly affecting Kevin Bacon and Diane Lane -- that wags this dog tale. -- Alicia Potter

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