Some of Chris Rock’s best standup comedy – which is to say, some of the best stand-up comedy, period – stems from his awareness that being a black man gives him license to make outrageous observations that would be brutally offensive and inflammatory if a white man were saying them. Put the words to his "Niggas vs. Black People" routine in the mouth of say, Jeff Foxworthy, and a comedy act becomes a Klan rally. Rock’s new movie, Down to Earth, has a set-up that lends itself to mining that volatile notion for shocking laughs and edgy satire. It effortlessly fails to do so.
Rock plays Lance Burton, a bicycle messenger by day and (you guessed it) standup comedian by night. Lance’s dream is to play the final night at the soon-to-be-closing Apollo Theater in Harlem, where five amateur slots will be available. But as fate would have it (in a scene staged with such lifeless indolence it doesn’t even qualify as perfunctory), Lance is struck down by a truck and whisked to heaven. His escort Keyes (played by Eugene Levy in autopilot nerd mode) is informed by top angel Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri) that he snatched Lance a second too early; he’s not due at the pearly gates for forty more years. A new vessel must be found to house Lance’s soul, a freshly dead one that has yet to be discovered. Thus Lance finds himself inhabiting the body of Charles Wellington, a rich, old white guy. Wellington, just dispatched to the next world by his scheming wife and his assistant, has recently made an enemy of community activist Sontee (Regina King). Lance-as-Wellington is determined to not only woo Sontee, but keep his date at the Apollo Theater, despite the fact that he now resembles Wilford Brimley.
If this plot sounds familiar, that’s because Down to Earth is a rehash of the 1978 hit Heaven Can Wait (which in turn was a remake of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan). Boasting a screenplay by Rock and much of the writing team from his HBO talk show and direction by Chris and Paul Weitz, the duo behind the cheerfully offensive American Pie, the most shocking thing about Down to Earth is how limp and mild it really is. Didn’t the suits who hired him realize that a PG-13 Chris Rock is, basically, Sinbad?
So determined are the filmmakers to give Rock as much screen time as possible, they undermine their story at every turn. We only get a few glimpses of Lance-as-Wellington as he is seen by everyone else in the movie; from our perspective, he’s still Chris Rock. When he takes the stage to perform his act, the scene should be a shocking comic highlight, but except for one brief shot of Lance’s earthly vessel, it’s all Rock – and watered-down Rock at that.
It’s easy to imagine a better version of Down to Earth. What if Rock came back in the body of Warren Beatty, the star of the previous version of this tale? Now that he’s polished his rapping skills in Bulworth, Beatty would be ripe for the scene where Lance-as-Wellington drives through the streets of New York, bellowing along to Snoop Dogg’s "Gin and Juice." Instead, Rock and the Weitz brothers have given the audience a rough draft – the sketchy outline of a comedy – and asked us to imagine the laughs that might have been.