Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on February 22, 2001 @ Las Vegas CityLife.
Chris Rocks plays it safe and clean in Down to Earth
It had all the signs of being a disaster -- two directors, four writers, a duration of under 90 minutes and negative pre-release buzz. But despite the warning signs, Down to Earth is worth seeing. Like mainstream brew, it doesnt have high potency, but it is a nice diversion.
Down to Earth is Chris Rock lite. He doesnt sell out; he merely turns down the volume. The audience at the movie's local opening show was basically white middle class, which shows how broad Rocks appeal is. The movie is PG-13 -- something you could take your grandmother to.
Paul and Chris Weitz's film is based on Warren Beattys Heaven Can Wait (1978), which was based on Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), which was based on Harry Segalls play Halfway to Heaven. It tells the story of Lance Barton (Rock), a would-be comedian who is killed in an accident before his allotted time. Heaven's chief angel (Chazz Palminteri) realizes the dreadful mistake, and puts Barton back on earth in the body of Charles Wellington III, a rich, ruthless white businessman, recently killed by his wife and her lover. The reincarnated Wellington, with Lance inside him, is suddenly transformed into a kind philanthropist. Lance, meanwhile, still harbors his old obsession -- to appear at the Apollo in Harlem. His original act was lame, but his new identity gives him new opportunities. Also central to the plot is Lance/Wellingtons relationship to Suntee (Regina King), a community activist with whom he falls in love.
Down to Earth is a clever new variation of an old movie concept. Most of the time we see Rock as Wellington, but when the other characters see him, he's white, and the incongruity of a 53-year-old white man rapping and using street lingo provides some amusing moments.
Using much of the material that Elaine May and Beatty wrote for Heaven Can Wait, the script, by Rock and three of his gag writers, includes some good, if ancient, jokes: "When [my] uncle went to the hospital for his liver, they sent his ass to the supermarket." Cha-ching!
And when Lance first sees Wellingtons fancy, wall-length television, he asks for BET, but its "not available." Also, in a clever allusion to the sorry fate of Rocks late lamented HBO show, the set has Showtime but no HBO. Those who feel the film has no bite, might want to stay for the credit sequence to hear Sticky Fingaz and Eminem do "What If I Was White?"
Rock is likable as Lance/Wellington and King is a suitable love interest. (Granted, one does have to suspend disbelief, especially about the often-repeated claim that Suntee sees something in the eyes of the middle-aged white man.) Palminteri and Eugene Levy give the angels fresh personalities, while Wanda Sykes, a staple of Rocks TV show, makes a feisty maid, and Frankie Faison adds humanity as Lances manager and friend.
This obviously is a test case for the Hollywood and the Weitz brothers, whose direction is reasonably unobtrusive. Paul Weitz had his directorial debut with American Pie, and he and Chris wrote The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps together. If Down to Earth fails at the box office, its back to flying dung and passing gas for the boys; their next film will be Back to Crap.
Down to Earth may not satisfy an audience looking for Chris Rock Uncensored, or outrageous crudity -- there's nary a scatological or flatulent joke in the entire film; neither will it be likely to please the audience that holds Heaven Can Wait or Here Comes Mr. Jordan sacrosanct. But if one takes it for what it is, this remake makes for an enjoyable afternoon's entertainment.