Down to Earth
2001, PG-13, 85 min. Directed by Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz. Starring Chris Rock, Regina King, Mark Addy, Frankie Faison, Eugene Levy, Greg Germann, Chazz Palminteri, Jennifer Coolidge.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 16, 2001
The Weitz brothers, who previously brought us American Pie, return with this update of Warren Beatty's 1978 directorial debut Heaven Can Wait (itself a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan), proving once again that no matter how many times you remake a film it's tough to top the original. Alexander Hall's original tale of boxer Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) inadvertently taken before his appointed time by an overzealous angel (Claude Rains) and then sent back to Earth in the body of callous millionaire Bruce Farnsworth plays often on AMC these days. Based on a play, the stagy film fits the contours of both your television and a slow Sunday afternoon nicely. Beatty's version -- which recast Pendleton as a footballer and featured James Mason as the angel in question -- had a sweet charm, much like the original. The Weitz brothers' version is more or less boilerplate, with the skinny, patently unathletic Rock as aspiring stand-up comic Lance Barton and Palminteri filling the role of his angelic host. The main difference here, of course, is the fact that Rock's street-savvy character comes back as a rich white guy, which naturally makes for some wacky hijinks, especially since the newer, whiter Lance is still hoping to win amateur night at the Apollo Theater. As setups go, it's not too bad, but Down to Earth -- as inoffensive a racial comedy as you're likely to see outside of the Hudlin brothers camp -- has little of the bite you'd expect. Rock is one of the most ingratiating of performers, and the material here (still credited to Heaven Can Wait scribe Elaine May, among others) is equally so. The film's subplot about the attempted murder of Barton -- or rather, the person in the body that now is Barton's -- by his scheming wife (Coolidge) and her sycophantic lover (Germann) is handled with the broadest comedy tongs ever. Their pool-table shenanigans have little of the cleverness shown by Heaven Can Wait's Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon. Barton's love interest Sontee (King, of Jerry Maguire) is given an added wrinkle by the race card, however, as this suddenly palatable wealthy white man falls head over heels for King's urban activist. Still, the gags here feel resolutely tired. A case in point occurs midway when Barton busts out rapping a Ruff Ryders tune in a Brooklyn deli -- the sight of this elderly white man shaking his groove thang ought to be outrageous, but here it just feels contrived. Likewise Coolidge's rump-shaking attempt to knock boots with her suddenly hip-hopped hubby -- rarely has a pair of leather pants been so sorely abused in the service of low comedy. What's most disappointing about Down to Earth is that the film is entirely devoid of the clever, knowing comic beats of the Weitz brothers' previous film. Gone is any sense of comic tension and randy, bad-boy stylings, and replacing it is an almost wholesome, feel-good cheer in which everything is clear to turn out just fine in the end. Both Levy (an assistant angel here) and Coolidge are alumni of American Pie (she was Stifler's mom) which almost makes this a sort of reunion film for the group. Not that that impacts Down to Earth's mild charm either way. Rock, perfectly agreeable, is unable to do much more than mug for the camera and topple in and out of comic situations. He can be devastating when given the right material (see CB-4), but here he's just too, well, down to earth.