Chris Rock is side-splittingly funny in "Down to Earth," and it's a darn good thing because -- in this movie, at least -- the man simply cannot act.
It's not just him, either. Under the sloppy, choppy, rushed and amateurish direction of Chris and Paul Weitz ("American Pie"), the whole movie plays like the actors are at their first table reading of the script. Everybody hams. Everybody sounds insincere, as if they're not yet sure what their dialogue means.
But you know what? "Down to Earth" is so knee-slappingly, seat-bouncingly, breath-gaspingly packed full of laughs, none of this matters enough to deflate what is designed to be a fast-food comedy anyway.
In this custom-molded remake of Warren Beatty's reincarnation comedy "Heaven Can Wait," Rock plays Lance Barton, a wannabe standup comedian who is a laugh riot off stage, but when he steps to the mike at the Apollo -- which he does every amateur night -- his lame, scripted jokes get such a bad reaction that the other comics call him "Booey."
Lance, a bike messenger by day, is on the verge of learning to relax in the spotlight and just let the lampoonery take its course -- when whammo! -- he's clobbered by a bus after being distracted by a pretty girl.
Already none too happy when he gets to Heaven, Lance discovers there's been a guardian angel error -- he was snatched too soon -- but now it's too late to put him back in his body. So while an appropriate new skin is being sought, Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri), the casino-boss style head honcho in Heaven (after the Big Guy, natch), drops Lance into a loaner bod. He becomes Charles Wellington, a middle-aged, white multimillionaire whose carcass has just become available, i.e. the guy has been poisoned by his wife and her boyfriend (Jennifer Coolidge and Greg Germann).
Needless to say, they're a little stunned to see Wellington suddenly up and around -- and suddenly, inexplicably bouncing his hefty frame to DMX, watching BET and talking ghetto smack.
The bonus gimmick of a wise-cracking black comic in the body of an upper-crust honky is sadly underplayed in "Down to Earth," except for the one scene in which Lance -- as Wellington -- tries out his "what black folks do, what white folks do" routine at a comedy club and hits the brick wall of the racial comedy double standard.
The movie kowtows to the same double standard, however, when it comes to the romantic subplot. You see, it wasn't Wellington's money that made Lance green-light the body swap. It was the fact that the girl (Regina King) -- the one who caught his eye and got him run over -- is a community activist rallying against the greedy millionaire's plan to buy a Brooklyn public hospital and turn it private, taking away poor locals' only emergency room.
Lance romances her by putting a stop to the deal, making Wellington suddenly look like an eccentric philanthropist with jungle fever. But even as King slowly falls in love with Lance (whom she sees as Wellington), the movie won't touch the interracial angle with a 10-foot pole.
When "Down to Earth" lets Rock off his leash to do his schtick, the comic brings down the house. The opening scene is a hilarious rant against the doorman at a haughty high rise who just assumes he's a delivery boy and tells him to go around back. Of course, he is a delivery boy.
The film's bevy of writers (including the brothers Weitz and several of Rock's comedy circuit pals) overstuff the picture not only with trademarked Rock humor, but with an ample supply of situational comedy as well (Best line: "Go to hell," Palminteri tells a loser waiting behind the velvet rope to get into Heaven).
Cinematically and structurally speaking, "Down to Earth" is a real mess. Gimmicks and gags that didn't fly were blatantly chiseled down or chopped out completely, leaving several holes in the movie where plot points should be. What's left is clumsy and simplistic ("There's something about your eyes," King tells Rock so many times that you know exactly what will happen when he gets swapped into a permanent body in the end). And as I said already, the acting leaves a lot to be desired.
But the fact remains that even when the movie is at its worst, the laughs just keep on coming. Since "Down to Earth" doesn't really aspire to anything more, the endless guffaws are really all that counts.
Run time: 87 mins
In Theaters: Friday 16th February 2001
Box Office USA: $63.1M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures, Alphaville Films
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 20%
Fresh: 19 Rotten: 77
IMDB: 5.4 / 10
Starring: Chris Rock as Lance Barton, Regina King as Sontee Jenkins, Chazz Palminteri as King, Eugene Levy as Keyes, Frankie Faison as Whitney Daniels, Greg Germann as Sklar, Jennifer Coolidge as Mrs. Wellington, Wanda Sykes as Wanda, John Cho as Phil Quon, Mario Joyner as Apollo M.C., Bryetta Calloway as Gospel Singer, Martha Chaves as Rosa, Brian Rhodes as Charles Wellington, III, Herb Lovelle as Trashman, Mark Addy as Cisco
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