Down to Earth is a remake, but — and this must be clearly understood — it is not a remake of the 1947 film, Down to Earth. Rather, it is a remake of the 1978 Warren Beatty film, Heaven Can Wait, which is not a remake of the 1943 Ernst Lubitsch film Heaven Can Wait, but a remake of the 1941 Robert Montgomery vehicle, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which in itself was based on a play called Heaven Can Wait. Got that? Good, because this film’s convoluted lineage is easily more interesting than the film itself, which isn’t as good as any of the movies it’s related to by title or plot! The material here has been “updated” and tailored to the talents of stand-up comic Chris Rock. The incidents have been “hipped up,” but the concept remains the same. And the concept, which was always awkward at best, doesn’t really lend itself to the hipness at hand. In the original, Robert Montgomery played a boxer who is seemingly about to die in a plane crash, at which point an overzealous angel snatches his soul just prior to his death in order to save him the suffering. The problem is that the plane was not meant to crash and Montgomery was not meant to die, but by the time all this has been rectified in the requisite Hollywood dry-ice mist heaven, Montgomery’s body has been cremated and it becomes necessary for the heavenly bureaucrats to find him a new one. When Warren Beatty got around to the material, the character became a football player. Chris Rock and company have turned him into a stand-up comic. And despite making him a bad stand-up comic (who, of course, learns to be a good stand-up comic through his experiences), the idea just screams some combination of self-indulgence and fear of stretching Rock’s talents as an actor. What someone ought to have worried about is the problem with the concept of a character who inhabits several different bodies, and yet appears to the audience — but not the other actors — as the same person. Down to Earth’s one departure in this area is that it occasionally does show what Rock looks like in his new body to others. Instead of making things less awkward, this only serves to make the film that much harder to swallow, since it can’t resist the presumed hilarity of a 50-plus-year-old, balding, overweight rich white guy lip-synching rap and calling people “dog” and other currently “with it” street terms. Some of this is funny in a cheap surface manner, but it makes the romance between Rock and Regina King (Enemy of the State) jaw-droppingly implausible. We’re actually supposed to buy into the idea that this attractive young black woman is ga-ga over a character who is ultimately a joke? Peppering the script with a dozen or so references to “something about his eyes” isn’t enough to span the credulity gap. The co-direction by Chris and Paul Weitz is rarely more than adequate, and the film rises or falls solely on the viewer’s fondness for Chris Rock and the screenplay’s occasional bright line. (A surprising amount of the dialogue is almost straight out of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, or, presumably, the original play, since the credits deftly sidestep the existence of the original film.) The whimsy of the premise that was held in place by Claude Rains as Mr. Jordan and Edward Everett Horton as the bumbling angel in the original, and James Mason and Buck Henry in the 1978 version, is utterly destroyed by replacing them with Chazz Palminteri and Eugene Levy. Dressing the characters as something akin to Las Vegas pimps and coarsening them for cheap jokes may be fleetingly funny, but it robs the film of the earlier versions’ gentle fantasy, and leaves us with what looks and plays like a TV skit with a thyroid condition. The film is smart enough to limit itself to a brisk 85-minute running time, but it still feels padded, owing to its lack of substance. Chris Rock fans may find it rewarding. Everyone else is warned.
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