Movie Review By Heather Clisby
It's pure bonus when a film that's marketed as fluffy taffy actually ends up being more of a steak dinner. Such is the case with "Down to Earth", the first film with comedian Chris Rock as leading man instead of witty sidekick. Updated to reflect today's society, this is a remake of the 1979 film "Heaven Can Wait" starring Warren Beatty and it boldly explores the chasms between races, genders and class systems. It even takes a small stab at female objectification.
Rock is Lance Burton, a Harlem bike messenger struggling to make something of his comedy act; his goal is to get through at least one set at the Apollo Theater's amateur night without getting booed off. He stinks, he really does, which requires much acting from Rock, who is otherwise so talented, it's almost a struggle to watch.
When Lance is mistakenly killed too soon, thanks to the daft mistiming of Heaven's stopwatch holder, Mr. Keys, there is some making up to do. (Mr. Keys is played by Eugene Levy whose presence is always a sign that the following comedy is going to be taken very seriously.) Keys' boss – a very major angel named Mr. King – has to step in with some fancy string pulling. King, somewhat absently played by Chazz Paliminteri, takes Lance shopping for a new body until a suitable match can be found.
They finally settle on the bod of a white man named Wellington, 15th richest man in America. Lance readily moves in once he realizes that a beautiful activist named Sontee is stalking the old man, determined to make him realize how his business dealings are affecting poor folks. Played by Regina King, the actress gives the film a dignified depth and a stamp of class; a wise casting choice.
There are all the delicious clichés one might expect from putting a raucous black man in a white man's body but "Down to Earth" goes further. No matter what the physical circumstance, Lance still desperately wants to secure one of five amateur slots at the closing night of the Apollo. Therefore, he continues playing his set, which includes the jokes of an urban black man coming out the mouth of a moneyed white man. Not the same effect. Nope, not at all. Wellington/Lance now appears to be a big-mouthed racist but the truly painful part is, Lance is finally hitting his groove and has never been funnier.
Directed with care by brothers Chris & Paul Weitz, the identity change is handled with some caution. Throughout Lance's occupation of Wellington's body, we still see Rock as himself and only occasionally get a peek at the pink-faced, white-haired elderly gentleman that others see. The difference is startling - as opposite as can be found – and works best this way or the shock would surely wear off on the audience. Not to mention the fact that Rock's voice would look so unnatural exiting that silver mustachioed mouth that it just wouldn't fly after awhile.
Lance/Wellington's romancing of the reluctant Sontee is one of the most realistic and romantic cinematic portrayals of honest courting I've seen in a long time. We go with them on long walks through the city and they are – are ya ready? – talking! Yup, strolling and chatting, pretty sexy stuff, huh? During one conversation Lance waxes poetic about the beauty of comedy, how all sides are giving and getting. "It's like boxing or dancing . . . there's nothing like it " he tells Sontee and here, we can see Chris Rock, is feeling every word. It may have been a line out of a script but his eyes are lit up and the passion comes through every gesture. Young, gifted, black, integral and, best of all, uncompromising. Chris Rock has only just begun to make his mark on this world.
© 2001 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 2/21/01
"Movie Magazine International" Movie Review Index
"Movie Magazine International" Home Page