Mike Nichols, what planet are you from?

In his latest dissection of the gender gap, the director of the great "Carnal Knowledge" trades earnest sexual consideration for a cheap, vibrating sight gag.

Published March 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

With "What Planet Are You From?" Mike Nichols returns to erectile dysfunction, subtext if not subject of his best movies. If George Segal couldn't hump the hostess in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" he'd become Liz and Dick's houseboy. Benjamin, "The Graduate," obviously relieved to get it up with Mrs. Robinson, is even more uneasy with her daughter.

The specter of E.D. especially haunts Nichols' masterpiece, "Carnal Knowledge," and its hero. Jack Nicholson, at the top of his seething form in 1971, plays Jonathan from college dances in the '50s to age 40 in the dawn of women's lib. "Girls today all want your money or your balls or both" has become Jonathan's defining problem by 30. It's harder for him to get it up as women get harder to dominate.

The character is a case study, deadly specific and rooted in history. But the movie taps into some secret brotherhood, a network of cold, dirty tunnels, highly pressurized, that runs underneath men. What Jonathan spews is recognizable bile, even if a woman had only heard it rumbling before. I first saw the movie in college, and I wanted to get spayed afterward.

"What Planet," on the other hand, put me in mind of a lobotomy. Screenwriter Garry Shandling plays an alien from an all-male planet. They wear identical jumpsuits. They've had their penises and emotions "bred out" of them. They reproduce by cloning. They decide to take over Earth (it's all gone over pretty vaguely in the movie, too) by breeding with its women.

Shandling is the advance man for the sneak invasion, outfitted with brief instructions for getting women in bed and a whirring mechanical penis. His crotch buzzes whenever he's aroused, which happens pretty much whenever he's near a woman. Thus the hunched-over Groucho walk becomes a sound gag.

The 68-year-old director told Entertainment Weekly that "men would get the joke ... about the hard-ons you wish you could control." But this is E.D. most men past 18 dream about. In what may be a casting in joke, Shandling is paired with Mrs. Super Stud, Annette Bening. She and the alien do it 126 times on their weeklong honeymoon.

Back on Planet Guy, the dudes are as generic in their jumpsuits as the movie's tired "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" riffs. The spacemen's faces are identically puzzled as they process the tips for seducing women: Compliment their shoes, tell them they smell nice, say "uh-huh" so they think you're listening to their prattle.

It's the same watered-down misogyny that dribbles out of sitcoms, those forwarded e-mail jokes, stand-up comedy, Dave Barry and his imitators, self-help books and Nora Ephron movies. The refrains are so familiar they're like a prayer to normalcy, and they all turn up in "What Planet": She waits till the game's on to talk about her feelings! She says the opposite of what she means! She wants to know what I'm thinking!

What protects product like "What Planet" from charges of sexism is the equally dull-edged male-bashing balancing it. Men never ask for directions! They need to hold the remote control! An emotionless alien with a strap-on is still better than Bening's Earth boyfriends!

A couple so alienated that one doesn't notice the other's from another planet could be a premise as dark as outer space. The Nichols of 30 years ago would have ventured there, but now he trots out beer commercial truisms to explain the gulf between his characters. His movies used to diagnose sexual dysfunction, but the new one dispenses a weirdly cynical prescription: You can't know that alien you work and live and reproduce with, so don't bother trying. As a matter of fact, that incomprehension is love.

After two hours of screen time, Shandling the alien and Bening the 12-stepper seem less connected than Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger. The characterizations, already slight, are simply trampled in the rush to the happy ending -- awwww, it's a wedding! That baby sure is cute, too! The sight of the infant reduces the Vulcanesque Shandling to tears. And Bening quickly forgives him lying, leaving her and kidnapping the kid. They must really love each other.

Nichols tells us these lies to get his stars down the aisle just as "Carnal Knowledge's" Jonathan lies to women to get them into bed. Women are enemy and battleground in Jules Feiffer's taut script: Jonathan's first score is Susan (Candice Bergen), girlfriend of his unsuspecting college roommate Sandy (Art Garfunkel). Sandy keeps rhapsodizing about her to Jonathan. "She tells me thoughts I didn't even know I had," he moons at one point. In one of the movie's funniest scenes, Jonathan chases Susan through campus, screaming, "How come you tell Sandy his thoughts but you never tell me mine? ... Tell me my goddamn thoughts!"

After Jonathan loses Susan to Sandy, he listens to the couple's chatter with rage and disgust, his face pinned in medium close-up. Bathed in ever-brighter light, the shot dissolves into a white-clad ice skater twirling on a pristine rink. She spins us through time; the next words we hear are a slightly older Jonathan urging Sandy to "get a load of the pair on her."

Shivering as they overlook the ice rink, Jonathan confesses to Sandy that he'd been having trouble with "myself, you know, getting hard." Salvation arrived in a push-up bra: Bobbie, played by Ann-Margret. Jonathan exults, "I took one look at the tits on her, and I knew I'd never have trouble again."

But the tits are attached to a needy, suicidal "ball-buster" whom Jonathan soon divorces. By the end of the movie, 40-year-old Jonathan can get it up only with a whore who recites his carefully worded speech back to him. Rita Moreno, dressed and coifed like a domestic, strokes his crotch, breathily describing "the women who worship you ... because of an inner strength ... Your knowledge of yourself and of them exposes the lies they live by." Lust and relief steal over Nicholson's face, which fades again to white and the skater.

Appearing at midpoint and the end of the movie, the skater brings together jealousy, desire, hate, control and detachment. She triggers Jonathan's awe, which quickly smears into contempt. Like David Thewlis' scabrous Johnny in Mike Leigh's "Naked," nothing pisses off Jonathan more than a vision of purity.

What Jonathan and Johnny hate most about women is the way they get their hopes up. They glimpse in women a possibility that life isn't shit, that there's goodness even in themselves. When they're inevitably disappointed, they smash up the woman who lured them from comfortable cynicism.

Casting Nicholson in "Carnal Knowledge" was brilliant because he's a man's idea of a sexy man. What he does best is rage, which his (mostly male) fans seem to read as sexual potency. He's the least appealing leading man of his generation -- a rat-faced, wing-pulling bully. He seemed corroded even when he was young and trim and had hair.

Over the years, Nicholson's loutish persona makes less and less sense in movies, which grow ever blither about cruelty. In the 1997 hit "As Good as It Gets," Nicholson is Melvin, as hateful a character as Jonathan, but everyone he abuses finds him adorably eccentric. In a peculiarly '90s twist, his misogyny and homophobia turn out to be a problem with his medication. Once he takes the right pill, the vicious old coot gets Helen Hunt.

Today, "Carnal Knowledge's" Jonathan would get Viagra from his doctor friend Sandy, and the miserable Bobbie would be on antidepressants. If Nichols made the movie today, the couple's pain would already be anesthetized with shtick. They'd live happily ever after at the fade-out, floating right over the HIV-fearing, porn-consuming, post-feminist, alienated-as-ever, wife-killing end-of-the-century U.S. of A.

It's not fair to blame the myopia on one old white guy happily married to Diane Sawyer, either. Mike Nichols simply reflects a Hollywood where misogyny and misanthropy result in all kinds of zany shenanigans. Impotence born of rage, fear and disgust has been replaced by a joke vibrator. Instead of well-matched adversaries seeking the emotional jugular, Nichols and his cohort create types for whom love means never noticing any particularities. We're from different planets anyway, so why bother looking any closer?

By Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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