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Chris Rock Earns His Wings

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2001

   


    'Down to Earth' Eugene Levy, left, and Chazz Palminteri play angels who teach Chris Rock about the afterlife in "Down to Earth." (Paramount)
Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Chris Rock, who is the best thing about his flimsy pretext of a film, "Down to Earth." He is the Rock on which the movie is built.

It's pretty consistently funny, if far generations removed from anything original. It turns out to be a remake of a remake of a remake of a play, not that anybody involved cares much about the source material. Originally Harry Segall's '30s Broadway play "Heaven Can Wait," it became "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" in 1941 with Robert Montgomery and then "Heaven Can Wait" again in 1978 with Warren Beatty.

So you know the plot already. It's the one about the prematurely dead guy who gets to come back to Earth in another man's body for a while, which gives him an opportunity to fall in love while solving the original owner's problems with his own sassy personality and direct methods.

Possibly you can trace the evolution of American male fantasy life by noting the occupations from which the star of this story was seized over the years. Montgomery's Joe Pendleton was a prizefighter, a glamour job in prewar America, while Beatty's Joe was an NFL quarterback, the apex of '70s cool. Rock's Lance Barton is a comedian, not only because it's a cool job that everybody wants but also because it offers a convenient platform for Rock to get into his stand-up routines, and show off his true thing in a way that performing in the straitjacket of a role won't allow. This isn't a bad idea. Who wants to see Chris Rock act? We want to see him as that loose-jointed, savvy, ferocious Mencken of hip, whose trenchant barbs fly in every direction and land in every community.

The new wrinkle here is that the body transfer is not merely cross-generational but cross-racial and cross-attitudinal. Rock's Lance is a New York messenger and amateur comedian erroneously COD'd to the big nightclub in the sky by an errant truck. Realizing their bookkeeping mistake, the manager and co-manager of the Copacabana Up There (Chazz Palminteri and Eugene Levy) ship him back as a wealthy white businessman who's just been murdered by his wife (Jennifer Coolidge) and his assistant ("Ally McBeal's" Greg Germann). So basically when Rock isn't routinizing, there's but one joke: black firecracker soul hiding in the body of a portly, balding, insensitive white guy. But a lot of the comedy of that idea is lost because Rock is always Rock, so we don't get much of the balding fat guy shaking booty to DMX. When we do, it's funny.

The movie, rightly I would say, is much less interested in its story than it is in Rock. The fantasy premise wears thin pretty quickly, and it doesn't matter much anyway. A few dreary agitprop scenes – Rock's black-guy-inside-a-white-guy directs that the hospital that is part of his business empire now admit patients without insurance or any hope of paying – eat up time without bothering to convince anyone. And a hit-man plot hatched to counter these radical moves by an evil board of directors is lame, lamer, lamest, so much so that it's abandoned at the three-quarters mark. Even a romance with Regina King as a community activist doesn't pay off with any real force.

But Rock is such a consistent delight, and so powerfully amused at the profound pleasure of being Chris Rock, that he shares the wealth with all of us.

"Down to Earth" (88 minutes) is rated PG-13 for attitude and profanity.

 

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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