Down To Earth

on February 16, 2001 by Jon Alon Walz
   Harry Segall's excellent play "Heaven Can Wait" was first released as a movie in 1941 as "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," and was then remade in 1947 as a musical starring Rita Hayworth entitled "Down to Earth." More than 30 years later, "Down to Earth" was remade as "Xanadu," and "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" was remade also but under the original title of the play, "Heaven Can Wait," by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry.

   But now, Beatty's "Heaven Can Wait" has been remade by the production team responsible for "American Pie" as "Down to Earth," but it is not a musical. Confused? Wait until you see the movie.

   Nominated for nine Oscars in 1978, including Best Picture, "Heaven Can Wait" starred Beatty as Joe Pendelton, an L.A. Rams quarterback who dies before his time due to a celestial snafu but is given one more shot on Earth in the body of eccentric millionaire Leo Farnsworth.

   In "Down to Earth," the Joe Pendelton character--renamed Lance Barton for this film--is played by the always energetic Chris Rock ("Dogma"). Barton, a struggling stand-up comic by night and bike messenger by day, is killed in a bicycle accident but, after a mix-up in heaven, is given one more shot on Earth in the body of corpulent, balding, white millionaire Charles Wellington.

   Chris Rock as an old white guy is certainly a terrific idea on paper, and might have made a fantastic film. But, as executed within the confines of the well-established and universally-known "Heaven Can Wait" premise, neophyte directors Chris and Paul Weitz, in conspiracy with Rock and three other writers, chose instead to underserve this classic plot by going for base guffaws instead of the finesse that has made the story work so wonderfully for going on 60 years.

   Barton, when transferred into the body of Wellington by guardian angel Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri), is able to see himself as he has always been when he looks in a mirror, but everyone else sees Wellington. Barton, in the body of the aged and overfed Wellington, begins to fall in love with young, beautiful African-American protestor Sontee (Regina King from "Jerry Maguire"), who objects to Wellington's plan to close a hospital in Brooklyn. Now, in all previous versions of this story, the audience never sees the dead millionaire, enhancing the surreal dynamic of the hero's situation. But in "Down to Earth" not only is it impossible to imagine Sontee finding anything even remotely attractive about Wellington--or even Barton's persona within Wellington a la "Being John Malkovich"--but the filmmakers make the massive blunder of actually showing Wellington, played by Brian Rhodes, to force cheap laughs. Sure, the gag of seeing Wellington in Harlem jivin' along to a rap song, or telling racist jokes in a comedy club, is mildly humorous, but subtlety and Oscars were obviously not in the plan here.

   Chris Rock, a hugely talented comedian and social commentator, has several individual moments in "Down to Earth" that showcase his tenacious skill and unique power as a comic actor, but he is rendered almost embarrassingly emasculated at times when his role as Lance Barton/Charles Wellington turns romantic in pursuit of Sontee.

   "Down to Earth" is a film that, when considered on its merits alone as a low-budget urban comedy, is little more than a mediocre, broadly-acted, over-the-top comedy with a couple good jokes here and there--and a nice poster.    Starring Chris Rock, Regina King and Chazz Palminteri. Directed by Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz. Written by Chris Rock, Lance Crouther, Ali LeRoi and Louis CK. A Paramount release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for language, sexual humor and some drug references. Running time: 85 min.

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