Lance Barton (Chris Rock) is a stand-up comedian whose life’s ambition is to play the Apollo Theater without getting booed off the stage. No doubt, this is a mighty ambition—the Apollo crowd is famously unforgiving. In the early moments of Down to Earth, we get a look at just how hard they can be, when Lance screws up and the crowd responds accordingly. Poor Lance. Everyone backstage, including his manager Whitney (Frankie Faison), likes and supports him, but no one knows quite how to help him, except to tell him, again and again, that eventually his day will come.
That ends up being true and not true. Minutes later, a truck barrels toward Lance on the street, but a helpful angel, Keyes (Eugene Levy), takes pity on him, and in order to prevent a horrible splat, hauls the young man’s soul out of his body an instant before impact. Pleased with his good work, Keyes send Lance on up to heaven, which is here a night club with a line outside, where only the pretty girls are assured entry. The trouble is that it’s not actually Lance’s “time,” and so the Head Angel, Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri) has to do some fast rearranging to set things right. Specifically, he offers Lance a “loaner” body, belonging to someone who has not yet been discovered dead, until the heavenly administration can locate a new, permanent body (or at least, permanent until it’s really his time to die).
Down to Earth
Chris Wietz and Paul Wetiz
Chris Rock, Regina King, Mark Addy, Eugene Levy, Frankie Faison, Chazz Palminteri, Greg Germann, Jennifer Coolidge
The temp body is that of a wealthy white guy named Wellington, who’s just been murdered in his tub by his wife (Jennifer Coolidge) and her lover/his accountant, Winston (Greg Germann). Complications arise when Lance-as-Wellington falls in love with the lovely Sontee (Regina King), who is battling him in the press and organizing protests over community hospital funding (one of Wellington’s many lucrative and corrupt investments). To win her heart, Lance-as-Wellington becomes a serious philanthropist, while at the same time working up his Apollo routine, to the delight of Wellington’s staff—his maid Wanda (Wanda Sykes, of The Chris Rock Show) and his butler Cisco (Mark Addy, of The Full Monty)—who serve as appreciative practice audience.
This set-up should sound familiar, as it’s based on 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty, and which was in turn based on 1941’s Here Comes Mr Jordan, with Robert Montgomery. Directed by Chris and Paul Weitz (who made the raunchy teen comedy American Pie and acted in Miguel Arteta’s Chuck and Buck), this third remake is calculated to serve as the vehicle for Chris Rock’s rise to PG-13 stardom. Recently, he’s been on the fast track to the Big Time, playing supporting roles in well-promoted movies (Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon 4, Kevin Smith’s Dogma, and Neil LaBute’s Nurse Betty) and winning prizes and accolades for his his popular HBO series, The Chris Rock Show. His stand-up routines are inclined toward topical, politicized humor, demonstrated in his Emmy-winning HBO specials, Bring the Pain and Bigger and Blacker, as well as his series, where the guests ran quite a gamut, from Marion Barry to Pamela Anderson, Ice T to Stanley Crouch. The move to mainstream necessarily involves some toning down, but it’s clear that Rock and his writing team (Ali Le Roi, Lance Crouther, and Louie CK) are determined to keep up the zings at the status quo.
And so, here comes Mr. Rock, invading the white folks’ world with something approximating a vengeance. As Lance, he’s a basic “fish out of water” (like Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley in the Beverly Hills Cop series), standing up to an easy-target, the upper class. There are rough spots in the film’s mix of sweetness and attack mode. Rock, with his well-known edgy delivery, isn’t the most obvious choice for the lead in a romantic comedy, though stranger things have happened, namely, David Spade as just such a lead, in 1999’s dreadful Lost and Found, in which he wooed Sophie Marceau, of all people.
Down to Earth recognizes this problem, and so makes the awkwardness of the romance its primary—and oft-repeated—joke. Sontee is not precisely falling in love with Lance, but with Lance-as-Wellington. For most of the film, you’re watching Chris Rock-as-Lance-as-Wellington (wearing an expensive dressing gown, designer suit, or an old-school golfing outfit, with knickers, a tam, and clicking cleated shoes), but occasionally you catch a glimpse of Wellington from another character’s point of view, and see the portly white guy acting “fly” or getting down to the latest hiphop track on the radio.
Sontee holds out for a few minutes of screentime, but according to the logic of the romance, she can’t help herself and soon falls for the suddenly rejuvenated old man who has been so awful to her for so long. When Lance-as-Wellington goes to the hospital, he finds his stuffy Board of Governors, including Winston, assiduously slashing services. Determined to impress Sontee, he gleefully announces that he’s opening the hospital doors to everyone in need, even those without insurance: “If your head is bloody, we’re your buddy!” The executives sitting around the boardroom table are horrified at this idea, but because Lance makes his declaration in front of a crowd of ailing folks (on crutches, in wheelchairs) and a slew of tv cameras, the topsy-turvy damage is done. And so this little section of the planet will be a better place for Lance’s interventions, as erratic and self-interested as they may be.
It’s this insistent niceness, combined with screwballish illogic, that makes Down to Earth a bit cumbersome. It’s stuck in between, not so saccharin as a Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks movie or so obnoxious as today’s teen romances (for instance, the Weitz brothers’ own notorious debut picture), but also not so dead-on target as Rock’s usual work, the gags ranging from wild to mundane. For all its efforts to accommodate romantic comedy conventions, what’s most striking about the movie is how it reimagines its hero. In both Heaven Can Wait and Mr. Jordan, the leads were predictably handsome—and predictably white—athletes, Beatty a quarterback and Montgomery a boxer. That is, the films raised no doubts concerning their masculinity, at least according to Hollywood standards. Chris Rock, of course, is hardly so conventional an emblem of virility, stability, or self-assurance. Skinny, acerbic, and righteously angry, Rock is a whole other kind of man.