DOWN TO EARTHPG-13
Down to Earth is a faithful remake of Warren Beatty's 1978 hit Heaven Can Wait (which was itself a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan), but it also feels a lot like the slick '80s Paramount comedy Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy. In that film, Murphy played a con artist who, as the pawn in a bet, got to change lives with a snooty rich banker. It was Murphy's second film, and he blew through it like a comic tornado. It's hard to believe that Down to Earth is only Chris Rock's first starring role, given his energetic supporting work in such films as Lethal Weapon 4, Dogma and New Jack City. A bike messenger and struggling stand up comic, Rock's character Lance Barton also finds himself suddenly living the high life, although, unlike Murphy, he has to die to do it.
Barton is a would-be performer from Bed Stuy who's trying to capture a coveted slot in an amateur showcase at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. Through a set of unfortunate circumstances which start with Lance ogling a pretty girl on a bike, he's taken to the big show in the sky 43 years early, thanks to an overeager heavenly emissary (Eugene Levy). King (Chazz Palminteri), the goodfella type who runs the day-to-day business of the afterlife (heaven is humorously depicted as a swanky nightclub complete with velvet ropes and fussy doormen), allows Lance to return to Earth, but the only available body is that of an extremely rich middle-aged white man named Charles Wellington. When Lance looks in the mirror, he still sees a young black guy from Brooklyn. But to the rest of the world, he's an insensivitive bigot who's the focus of much animosity in the black community due to his plans to close a Brooklyn hospital he owns. It turns out the woman on the bike, Sontee (Regina King), is one of Wellington's harshest critics, which makes Lance's aspirations to woo her even tougher, beyond the obvious obstacle that he's now far from svelte.
Heaven Can Wait is by no means a great film, but Beatty and Elaine May's script got by on charm and whimsy and was anchored by a terrific cast. Down to Earth, which is nothing more than a mildly amusing racial comedy, is directed by brothers Chris and Paul Weitz, fresh off the smash hit American Pie. Their approach to the material is to focus on their star and relegate his supporting cast, which includes some talented comic actors, to underworked sitcom roles. As in Heaven Can Wait, Wellington's oversexed wife parades about indiscriminately with her lover, but Jennifer Coolidge and Greg Germann are nothing more than cartoon characters next to Dyan Cannon (who earned an Oscar nomination) and Charles Grodin in Beatty's film. Coolidge, who was quite funny in both American Pie and Best in Show, earns some laughs when she decides to seduce her husband for once by shaking her behind at him and saying, 'I've noticed you've been into that whole Jet magazine thing.'
Down To Earth's script, by Rock and three writers from his HBO show, has a good time with Lance's struggle to live as a black man trapped in a white man's body. Lance might look white, but he makes no real effort to act like the man whose body he now owns (despite the fact that his first moments as Wellington find him attired in a green monogrammed sweater, bow tie and golf shoes). When he gets back on a nightclub stage, you can imagine that the racially charged jokes he once told now leave audience's jaws dropping at their impropriety. And Sontee is understandably shocked when, while on a dinner date at a hot dog emporium, Lance joins some tough customers in shouting some lyrics by rapper DMX, an act which gets him punched in the face. One of Rock's funniest moments comes late in the film when he finds himself again inside a black man's body. When he tries repeatedly to hail a cab with no success, his gleeful realization 'I'm black again!' leaves you smiling, but thinking that this extremely likeable actor needs material spicier than this genial but lackluster romantic comedy to be at his best.