By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 10, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Garry Shandling is the most exquisitely understated of all contemporary comic cranks. At first, he looks like a guy from a diarrhea-medicine commercial — a blobby advertisement for internal misery. He has the wary, stressed-out aura of a man whose lack of matinee-idol looks is only compounded by his visible unhappiness about it. When he pulls back those fish lips into a ”friendly” smile, he looks, if anything, even more pained than when he frowns — that grin is really an epic wince. For all his neurotic discomfort, though, Shandling has honed a unique, needling style of soft-shoe invective; he may be the driest misanthrope since W.C. Fields. On The Larry Sanders Show, his dyspeptic, grudge-bearing late-night talk-show host couldn’t muster a glimmer of concern for anyone but himself, and the character’s anxiously concealed yet outrageously inflated vanity allowed Shandling the satiric artist to perfect his own secret weapon: the elegant projection of utter indifference.

What Planet Are You From?, which Shandling cowrote, coproduced, and stars in (it was directed by Mike Nichols), is nothing more than a sort-of-dumb, sort-of-clever fish-out-of-water comedy about an extraterrestrial from a planet of neutered, droid-like males who gets sent to earth on a mission to make a random woman pregnant (something to do with his planet’s desire for universal domination). Arriving via a white-light sphere, which deposits him inside an airplane restroom, he lands in Phoenix, establishes himself as a mild-mannered bank employee named Harold Anderson, and immediately tries to sleep with every female he sees. He’s like a preprogrammed robot swinger, complete with a hey-baby line for every occasion and an artificial penis that emits a prominent, vibrator-ish hum whenever he gets aroused.

Harold keeps sauntering up to pretty blonds and saying things like, ”Can I have your autograph? Well, you are Miss America, aren’t you?” Rebuffed, he comes armed with hepcat retorts like, ”Ouch! Kitty likes to scratch!” The character is a walking send-up of the long-out-of-date macho-caveman pickup artist, and What Planet Are You From? looks, at first, like it has the potential to be an Austin Powers laced with the sexual paranoia of Maxim magazine. Harold, of course, doesn’t believe a thing he says — his ”seductive” patter is all just a means to an end — but then, that’s the wormy operating principle of so many lotharios: Tell a woman not what you think but what you think she wants to hear. The movie capitalizes, quite smartly, on Shandling’s blase solipsism — the lack of feeling he radiates toward anything but his own immediate goals.

Had Shandling and his co-screenwriters, who include former Larry Sanders writer and executive producer Peter Tolan, stuck with this strategy, they might have come up with scathing, raunchy laugh riot. But What Planet Are You From? is friendlier than you expect; it turns out to have a soft, chewy center. The movie’s abrasiveness is mostly siphoned off into Harold’s misogynistic-shark coworker, played by a goateed Greg Kinnear (doing far more confident screen work as a bastard than he usually does playing nice guys). He takes Harold to an AA meeting to pick up women, and it’s there that Harold encounters Susan (Annette Bening), the sweetly dizzy basket case he ends up wooing, marrying, and — yes — getting pregnant. Ultimately, the movie isn’t really a spoof of dating horrors; it’s a mild parodistic portrait of the male fear of domesticity. Harold starts out with no sentimental heart and then gradually gains it. He becomes human in spirit (though his penis still hums).

This, I realize, sounds just icky enough to be a Robin Williams movie, and, in fact, if it had been a Robin Williams movie, with Williams’ tear-streaked mug beaming into the cosmos as he learned how to feel, it might well have been insufferable. But Shandling, with his acidic detachment, keeps the tone light and wry rather than syrupy, and so does John Goodman as the investigator who uncovers Harold’s secret. As Susan, the ex-drunk who longs to redeem herself by becoming a mommy, Bening, even in a formula role like this one, is so lovable she actually makes you believe that she’d melt the resolve of a technocratic space visitor. Besides, Shandling could hardly be mawkish if he tried. In his prickly way, he makes this alien seem…alienated. Up on his planet, with its totalitarian white-on-black world of men only, he looks spooked as only a self-absorbed wretch could be. By the end, you really do want him to stay on earth and lead a conventionally happy life. For Garry Shandling, that would be redemption indeed.