While “Down to Earth” promises to be another installment of comedian Chris Rock’s cutting, sidesplitting humor, it turns out to be not much more than a meek and over-played version of the original Warren Beatty film “Heaven Can Wait.”
“Heaven Can’t Wait” was originally a Broadway play by Harry Segall. Unfortunately, “Down to Earth” may make one too many remakes. Directed by the Weitz brothers (“American Pie”), the story centers around Lance Barton (Chris Rock), who is a struggling comedian nicknamed “Booey” because of his poor stand-up performances and his desire to be in the last stand-up competition at the closing Apollo theater in Harlem. Barton, who works as a delivery man by day, dies early in the movie and is then somewhat unbelievably reincarnated.
Early on in “Down to Earth,” an oncoming truck kills Burton while a beautiful girl (Regina King) grabs his attention when he is riding his delivery bike. The twist is that Rock is not supposed to die. Angered at his death, Rock speaks with two guardian angels — Chazz Palminteri and Eugene Levy — when he enters heaven. The angels realize a mistake was made, and Rock was not supposed to die until the year 2044. As a compromise, the angels reincarnate Rock. He enters the body of Charles Wellington, the 15th richest man in America — the same man Rock delivers a package to in the opening scene, where he is sent to the service entrance of Wellington’s building when he enters after two white men.
After the reincarnation, the movie begins to fall short of its potential. For some odd reason, the directors decided not to have Rock wear Eddie Murphyesque make-up or a body suit. Only the two guardian angels are supposed to see Rock as Lance Barton, but the audience also sees him this way, even though he is supposed to be Wellington –a wrinkled, overweight, white man. Brian Rhodes plays the role of Wellington, only occasionally appearing in order to remind the audience that Rock is no longer Lance Burton. The fact that the audience has to imagine Rock as Wellington makes the concept all the more unbelievable, and somewhat confusing.
“Down to Earth” is not without its moments, though. Rock’s first scene as Wellington is one of the funniest moments of the show, as he prances around Wellington’s mansion of an apartment in plaid golf knickers and spikes. It is during this scene that the audience meets the movie’s leading lady, Brooklyn Hospital activist Sontee (King), the same girl who catches Rock’s attention before he is killed.
King is engaged in a long running dispute with Wellington for its poor treatment of patients at the Brooklyn hospital owned by Wellington’s company. Rock, in pursuit of Sontee, takes on the predictable role of making Wellington’s company more compassionate as he attempts to resurrect the hospital. Jennifer Coolidge — Stifler’s mom in “American Pie” — stars as Wellington’s sexy and deviant wife, who sneaks around with Wellington’s slimy adviser Winston Sklar (Greg Germann, “Ally McBeal”).
Ironically, the funniest scene does not come in one of Rock’s many stand-up performances during the film, but rather during a board meeting at the hospital. Attempting to win the heart of Sontee, Rock — playing Wellington at this point — tears apart his greedy board members for their heartless acts and declares that the hospital will be a friend to those in trouble. As Rock says, if you’re “shot in the head, then get a bed.”
The plot in “Down to Earth” is intriguing, but the majority of jokes are obvious and overdone. Only Rock’s interspersed solo rants save the movie.