Chances are the very people who revere Warren Beatty’s HEAVEN CAN WAIT will be the last people in line to see Chris Rock massacre that brilliant film in his new comedy DOWN TO EARTH. By that same token, anyone going to see Rock in DOWN TO EARTH are so many generations removed from that 1978 film that it doesn’t matter anyway.Like HEAVEN (which incidentally was a remake of 1941’s HERE COMES MR. JORDAN), DOWN TO EARTH is a project to spotlight the talents of its leading man. For HEAVEN, it was Beatty’s leading man good looks and likable personality that won audiences over. In this 2001 update, Rock’s stand up comedy abilities are brought to the forefront in a predictable effort that drowns away any good will the original had.
The result is definitely a mixed bag even though the story structure essentially remains the same. Rock is struggling comedian Lance Burton who never seems to make it at New York’s famed Apollo Theater on amateur night. He’s so bad in fact that his manager Whitney Daniels (Frankie Faison) has nicknamed him Booey – of course he has a soft spot for the kid because what he lacks in good jokes he makes up with spunk.
When an unfortunate accident takes Lance’s life before his time, a bumbling angel (Eugene Levy) and his tough-talkin’ angel boss King (Chazz Palminteri) offer to give him a temporary body until a better body comes around. That temporary body ends up being an old white millionaire named Charles Wellington. It’s a stretch for the black Lance to pass as Wellington, but he makes do and ends up making changes to rectify this horrible man’s greedy mistakes throughout life.
The rest is rote – Lance has fallen for a pretty woman named Sontee (Regina King) who tries to show Wellington the error of his ways when he wants to shut down a low income hospital. The two naturally fall in love.
All the while, Lance is trying to get Wellington in shape to perform on the very last amateur night at the Apollo since it’s on the verge of closing down. In the film’s only clever idea, Lance learns that the black humor he so easily spouted off as a black man merely comes off as racist coming out of the mouth of a white man. In order to find his true comedic abilities, Lance needs to learn to broaden his scope and look inside himself to find out what is universally funny.
Though this idea is clever it’s lost amidst the incredibly unfunny film. Directed by AMERICAN PIE’s Chris and Paul Weitz, they continue their losing streak. While PIE raked in the cash, the film was amateurishly shot and the story appallingly bad. Here, the saving grace is Rock who really shines in the leading role although no attempt to “direct” the film is found from the Weitz brothers and the movie suffers greatly because of that.
Rock had a lot of problems making the transition to the big screen after his stint on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. He was always in the shadow of Eddie Murphy and his lone attempt to headline a film – the dreadful CB4 – has now been long forgotten. He’s been better in supporting roles, but with DOWN TO EARTH he goes for that leading man status once again. He at least proves he’s got the chops. He’s toned his R rated comedy down to an acceptable PG-13 level and because of that his humor too becomes a bit more universal. That’s not to say it’s enough to save this film (Rock co-wrote it with three of his buddies in four days and it shows). There’s just no heart to this movie which relies on repeating key plot points like “I can see who you really are in your eyes” so many times, you get the feeling the Weitz brothers must think the audience is a bunch of morons.It probably wasn’t worth remaking HEAVEN CAN WAIT in the first place, but I doubt anyone’s going to care. DOWN TO EARTH has a built-in audience which will likely flock to the film for Rock’s solid star turn.-- Carl Cortez