Down to Earth

This movie isn't just a remake, but a remake of a remake of an adaptation. The whole thing started as a play called Here Comes Mr. Jordan, then was adapted into a 1941 film of the same name, which starred Robert Montgomery as a boxer and amateur pilot who dies before his time and is subsequently sent back to earth in a different body. The movie was remade in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty as a football player who undergoes the same ordeal. Finally, we arrive at the 2001 remake Down to Earth, which gives Chris Rock (Top Five) an opportunity to put his own spin on the story. Unsurprisingly, Rock and his co-writers (Louis C.K., Ali LeRoi and Lance Crouther) had some interesting new ideas to bring to the table. Surprisingly, they were unable to find a way to wring any laughs out of those ideas.

Rock is Lance Barton, an aspiring stand-up comedian whose career is hampered by his hacky material and his severe lack of confidence. He's performed at the Apollo theatre on numerous occasions, and has been received so poorly that he's picked up the nickname “Boo-ey.” Alas, whatever career Lance might have had is cut short when the poor guy gets hit by a truck. Unfortunately, it seems that Lance's guardian angel (Eugene Levy, American Pie) was being inattentive – Lance was supposed to live a few more decades. An angel named King (Chazz Palmenteri, A Bronx Tale) promises to get things sorted out, but he has to find Lance a new body.

To cut a long, elaborate setup short, Lance ends up in the body of a wealthy old white man named Charles Wellington III. The idea has potential: by allowing Rock to make the transition from struggling black man to esteemed white man, the film tees itself up for an exploration of hypocritical social values. Trading Places basically offered the same premise in a different sort of way, delivering both thoughtful ideas and terrific gags. Disappointingly, what Down to Earth delivers is a series of predictable, tedious jokes that land with a thud.

Thanks to a series of awkwardly-staged scenes of info-dumping, we know that Lance sees himself as a black man, but that everyone else sees him as a white man. Lance knows this, but conveniently forgets it every five minutes or so for the sake of advancing the next joke. In one scene, Lance tells a series of racially-charged jokes that sound awfully offensive coming from an old white guy. In another scene, Lance hears a rap song he likes and starts singing along, eventually shouting the n-word at the top of his lungs. It's yet another example of what Roger Ebert dubbed “the idiot plot,” in which seemingly intelligent characters have to act like idiots in order to move the story along. Despite external appearances, everyone in this movie is aggravatingly dumb: Lance, the angels, Willington's bewildered associates, Lance's love interest (Regina King, Southland), etc.

What an excess of plot Down to Earth has. It crams heavenly rules and regulations, a love story, a tribute to the Apollo Theatre, an assassination plot, business shenanigans, disgruntled employees, old friends and so much more into its 87-minute running time, always pushing the complicated story forward rather than giving the characters time to breathe. The movie spends most of its running time explaining itself, as if it's setting up an elaborate joke without a punchline.

The frustrating thing is that you sense Rock could work wonders with this idea if he were riffing on it in one of his stand-up routines. In that format, it's a joy to witness him land on an intriguing idea and explore its previously untapped comic riches. Down to Earth takes those same intriguing ideas, tosses off easy jokes and then abandons them. The notion of heaven as a nightclub run by mobsters is delightful, but we get a lame Frank Sinatra joke and then move on (the movie seems afraid of addressing religious or spiritual ideas, which is odd for a film involving angels and the afterlife). The idea that real-life experience plays a significant role in determining the jokes you can get away is a thought-provoking subject, but this movie isn't interested in actually thinking about it.

The love story occupies a sizable portion of the film's running time, but Rock and King don't generate much chemistry together. The blame can largely be placed on Rock's shoulders: he's brilliant, but he's never been much of an actor. Part of the reason Rock's Top Five worked so well is that it really, truly allowed Rock to simply be himself and stay true to his own comic voice. Chris Rock makes a great Chris Rock, but he doesn't make a great Lance Barton. As with too many of the actor's earlier movies, this one feels like Rock trying to squeeze himself into a broadly accessible mold. Directors Paul and Chris Weitz – who were fresh off the success of American Pie – also dampen their own ribald sensibilities in the hopes of reaching a bigger audience. Like so many movies that try to be all things for all people, Down to Earth ends up feeling like it isn't really for anyone.

Down to Earth

Rating: ½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 87 minutes
Release Year: 2001