Friday February 16, 2001
Hollywood has made a habit of taking charismatic, even transgressive performers and putting them into tepid popular entertainments. Think Elvis Presley. Think Richard Pryor. And now, think Chris Rock.
In fact, "Down to Earth's" comic story (which the star co-wrote and executive-produced) of a man who dies before his time and is returned in a different body is an unlikely combination of what befell the brilliant Pryor and, a decade earlier, the King.
Like many of Pryor's movies ("Brewster's Millions," "The Toy"), "Down to Earth" takes pains to soften and bland out its star's more scabrous characteristics. And like all of Presley's efforts, "Down to Earth" is best when it stops its plot cold and allows the performer to do what he does best: in this case, launch into sharp and telling stand-up routines.
Rock's case is more complicated than his predecessors' because, as the Emmys and Grammys he's won attest, not only is he extremely funny and talented, but he's already made a successful entry into films with parts in "Lethal Weapon 4," "Dogma" and "Nurse Betty" that stick closer to his edgy comedy persona.
More than that, it's not by definition a bad idea for Rock to want to play different kinds of roles, to take on, as he told one interviewer, "something you can only do when you're hot." The problem is that what he has ended up in is the blandest kind of conventional romantic comedy, a feeble effort that feels interminable even at a lean 86 minutes.
Though "Down to Earth" has a distinguished pedigree, this is its second remake, and the bloodline is getting thin. The original film, the Robert Montgomery-starring "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," was good enough to win a pair of writing Oscars in 1941, but the 1978 Warren Beatty "Heaven Can Wait" remake was sketchy enough that when Rock and his writers saw it on tape, he told the New York Times, "We went, 'Aw, yeah, we can annihilate this.' "
Rock and co-writers Lance Crouther, Ali Le Roi and Louis CK have stayed within hailing distance of the source when it comes to general plot outline. Rock plays Lance Barton, a feisty New York bike messenger who hasn't given up on his dream of becoming a successful stand-up despite being regularly booed off the stage at the Apollo's amateur night. Lance, it turns out, has to die to learn to be himself, has to get outside his body to get in touch with the comic buried deep inside.
But though a traffic accident puts him in a hectic heaven ("Take it easy, don't rush, you'll be dead a long time," the crowds are told), Lance isn't supposed to be dead. Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri), kind of God's major-domo, can't let him have his old body back, but he can have use of another one as a loaner until more permanent arrangements can be made.
Wouldn't you know it that the temp body Lance ends up with belonged to Charles Wellington III, a wealthy old white guy, the 15th-richest person in America to be precise, who was saddled with a cheating wife (Jennifer Coolidge) and a conniving assistant (Greg Germann).
Wellington also had some serious enemies, including a community activist named Sontee (Regina King), who is furious at what the tycoon is planning to do to a Brooklyn hospital he owns. It's in fact a glimpse of the attractive Sontee that helps convince the smitten Barton that Wellington's is the body he wants.
There are at least theoretical comic possibilities in this situation, in everyone viewing Barton as white even though we in the audience are still looking at Chris Rock. But the star and his writing team, the same folks that made his HBO specials so funny, have managed to realize none of this potential. Similarly, directors Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz, who were sure-footed with "American Pie," seem so at sea here that the film barely feels directed at all.
While it is surreal to see Rock doing bad stand-up and pretending not to be funny, the film does capture our attention at those moments, like an opening riff on being hassled by a doorman, when the star allows himself to be himself. Rock is undisputably gifted and charismatic, but when "Down to Earth" takes his edge away, the film's energy goes with it. And without energy, no comedy can survive.
Down to Earth, 2001. PG-13, for language, sexual humor and some drug references. Paramount Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures present, in association with NVP Entertainment, an Alphaville 3 Arts Entertainment production, released by Paramount. Directors Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz. Producers Sean Daniel, Michael Rotenberg, James Jacks. Executive producers Chris Rock, Barry Berg. Screenplay Chris Rock & Lance Crouther & Ali Le Roi & Louis CK, based on the "Heaven Can Wait" screenplay by Elaine May and Warren Beatty from a play by Harry Segall. Cinematographer Richard Crudo. Editor Priscilla Nedd-Friendly. Costumes Debrae Little. Music Jamshied Sharifi. Production design Paul Peters. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. Chris Rock as Lance Barton. Regina King as Sontee. Chazz Palminteri as Mr. King. Mark Addy as Cisco. Eugene Levy as Mr. Keyes. Frankie Faison as Whitney Daniels.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun