..

DOWN TO EARTH

downtoearth.mzzzzzzz (5779 bytes)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Chris Rock, Regina King, Eugene Levy, Frankie Faison, Greg Germann, Jennifer Coolidge, Chazz Palminteri
Directors:  Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Featurette
Length:  87 Minutes
Release Date:  July 10, 2001

“Funny thing about reincarnation, kid.  Even when you’re not you…you’re you.”

Film **1/2

Down to Earth has all the material necessary to make a good romantic comedy, except for the fact that the romantic aspects are left sadly underdeveloped and the comic aspects actually weigh the material down rather than lift it up.

It’s a remake of the Warren Beatty modern classic Heaven Can Wait, which, of course, was a remake of the great 1940s film Here Comes Mr. Jordan.  There actually was a sequel, of sorts, to Mr. Jordan which coincidentally had the title Down to Earth, but that Down to Earth has nothing to do with this new movie Down to Earth.  The original Down to Earth was also remade, but as Xanadu.  With me so far?  Good.

Warren Beatty originally penned his Heaven Can Wait screenplay with the notion of casting Muhammad Ali in the lead role.   For whatever reason, that never panned out.   But apparently, Beatty told star/co-writer/co-producer Chris Rock that he always thought the story should have been about an African American.

Rock, one of the most talented comedians working today, took his inspiration from the original…that is to say, the remake of the original…and the script he co-wrote is actually quite faithful to it.   Having seen Heaven Can Wait a number of times (it’s one of my favorites), every moment of Down to Earth was comfortable and cozy to me.  There were no surprises, which pleased me.  It was not a story requiring any improvement, and Rock intuitively realized that.

Here, he plays Lance Barton, a bicycle messenger with dreams of making it big on the comedy circuit—specifically, playing the tough Apollo Theatre and making a success of it.  He’s actually been on the stage a few times before, but…well, let’s just say he didn’t get the nickname “Booey” for nothing.

His plans are cut short by death (I hate it when that happens).  A bike accident leads Lance to Heaven, but as it turns out, a mistake was made, and Lance wasn’t supposed to die at that moment.  (As with the original film, I always wondered how Heaven could make a mistake like that…if they have your exact time of death on record, how could they possibly pull you early?  But, there it is.) 

The head angel, King (Palminteri) offers Lance another shot, but in a new body.  Soon, the hip young Lance finds himself in the body of a ruthless, middle-aged white millionaire named Wellington!  To his family and associates, the changes Wellington undergoes are strange to say the least, but for Lance, love is in the air when he meets Sontee (King), a woman who angrily confronts Wellington for his already-in-progress plans to take over the Brooklyn Hospital and privatize it, leaving the poor or the patients without insurance with nowhere to go!   Lance has his work cut out for him, but realizes with Wellington’s money and his fresh, new attitude, anything is possible…maybe even getting Sontee to fall in love with him (even though she can only see him as a dumpy, older white guy).

The possibilities are there for something good, but the film continually feels like it’s holding back.  Maybe that’s just because I was already familiar with how the story would end, but then again, something about the film’s incessant need to reach back for another unnecessary laugh kept spoiling the rhythm for me.  The story ended up as a clothes line with one joke after another hung on it.  I have faith in Rock’s ability as an actual movie star and leading man, but the film only has faith in him as a comedian.  I guess considering he co-wrote and co-produced the movie, there’s really no one else to blame for that.

There are some good laughs in the picture, but they really only work when they evolve out of the narrative, which is rare.   The best sequence involves Lance/Wellington at his first official board meeting…funny stuff!  Most of the comedy, however, comes from free floating jokes, and of course, the necessary race-reversal physical humor that plays like the flip side of Watermelon Man.  Other jokes just obviously struck somebody in the writer’s meeting as funny, so they got stuck in, such as the Chinese Wayne Newton clone who sings with a thick accent and becomes the Apollo’s biggest hit!

Chris Rock can, and will do better things in the future…I’m sure of that.  His intentions were no doubt good with Down to Earth, but it falls short of its potential.  It’s a movie with heart, but not the courage to go with it.

Video ***

This is a quality anamorphic offering from Paramount.  Colors are generally very good throughout; natural looking and well-contained, with good detail.  A few darker scenes suffer from a little softness, but only slightly.  Lighter scenes work much better, with more integrity and sharper images.  I noticed no grain, shimmer, break-up or compression artifacts of any kind, and the print itself, being brand new, is very clean.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is highly serviceable, if not particularly demanding.  I didn’t notice much in the way of rear channel discretion, but neither did I notice myself missing it.  Most of the film is dialogue oriented, with words, music and effects playing well across the front stage and slight uses of the .1 channel for extra bass.

Features *1/2

There’s a trailer, and a ten minute promotional featurette on the making of the film.

Summary:

A remake of Heaven Can Wait with Chris Rock was not a bad idea…it’s just that somewhere in between the Warren Beatty original and the Chris Rock remake was probably a better and more focused film that didn’t quite come into being.  There are laughs, and there’s a good story, but rarely do they connect with one another in order to grow into more satisfying entertainment.