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'Down to Earth' Hits Rock Bottom

By Michael O'Sullivan
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)
Let me get this straight.

In 1937, Harry Segall wrote "Heaven Can Wait," a stage play about a boxer who accidentally dies before his time and is reincarnated in the body of a murdered millionaire. Before it ever made it to Broadway (where it ultimately flopped in 1946), Segall's script was turned into a screenplay for the well-received 1941 film "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," which itself spun off a not-so-well-received sequel, "Down to Earth." Then, in 1978, Warren Beatty and Elaine May remade "Jordan." Their rewrite, again titled "Heaven Can Wait," got nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Now, Chris Rock and a handful of his award-winning TV comedy show writers (Lance Crouther, Ali Le Roi and Louis CK) have reworked the story one more time, turning the athlete (in Beatty and May's version, he was a football player) into an untalented stand-up comic named Lance Barton (Rock) and adding a racial twist. See, he's now a black man trapped in the body of a white millionaire. Their retooled millennial version – called "Down to Earth" after prematurely being slated for release last summer under the title "I Was Made to Love Her" – opens in theaters everywhere this weekend.

Leaving well enough alone never has been Hollywood's strong suit.

How bad is it? Bad enough for me to spend two paragraphs talking about the film's provenance. Anything to put off having to actually review it, but here goes:

1) For a comedy, there are precious few real laughs. Three to be exact (which I won't spoil for you, but they generally have to do with black-white relations). Four if you count the all-too-infrequent sight gag of a fat, balding white guy rapping along to DMX and, supposedly, "acting black." Most of the time, when we see Charles Wellington (the aforementioned dead white millionaire whose body Lance is inhabiting), he looks and acts like . . . an unfunny version of Chris Rock. (Note to Rock, who also executive-produced: If you're making a comedy, it's generally not a good idea to make the main character a bad comedian.)

2) Although Rock was the best thing about the 1999 "Dogma" (admittedly, that's not saying much) and was great in last year's "Nurse Betty," his acting is simply amateurish here. Half the movie he's playing romantic lead, not funnyman. And I'm sorry, but does anyone really want to see this skinny, bug-eyed joker swapping spit with Regina King, who plays Sontee, the woman he falls in love with? Even when he's not cracking wise, which is often, Rock can't seem to keep a straight face.

3) Okay, I might buy that Sontee, an uptight community activist who originally hated Wellington when he tried to privatize a public hospital, could fall in love with a fat white coot old enough to be her father, but how come it doesn't bother her that he's also married? Nobody in the world will care about this troubling detail besides me (that's what reviewers get paid for), but it seems like she ought to make some token acknowledgment of her adultery. It doesn't mitigate matters either that Wellington's wife (Jennifer Coolidge, who played Stifler's mom in "American Pie") is also having an affair with Wellington's assistant ("Ally McBeal's" Greg Germann).

4) Rock, who has never been shy about blue humor, and Chris and Paul Weitz, directing brothers who made the raucous, hilarious "American Pie," seem hamstrung by the movie's PG-13 rating. By every measure the movie ought to be funny. But in grooming Rock for mainstream success and approval from the middle-of-the-road audience that he obviously and inexplicably craves, the creative team here seems to have forgotten that precisely what's funny about Rock is the fact that he's not mainstream. By turning the smart outsider into the dumb insider, they've managed to throw the baby out with the bath water.

"Down to Earth" (PG-13, 88 minutes) – Contains mild vulgarity, a drug reference, a bloodless shooting and making out.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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