In Richard Pryor’s attempts to transfer his talents from the standup stage to the silver screen, he simply lost most of the ineffable qualities that made him a comedy legend. Sadly, it looks like Chris Rock can relate.
Pryor is a god to many comedians, but none more so than Rock. That’s why it’s so perplexing to see Rock, who might be the most consistently edgy, funny standup since Pryor, reduced and blunted in Down to Earth, his first big-budget star turn.
While Pryor’s talent was squandered in years of sanitized, prepackaged Hollywood offerings, Rock had been more judicious with his choices of film roles up to now. Perhaps the lure of a big paycheck or his name above the title blinded Rock to the Pryoritization he endures in this underwhelming little film.
Rock and his buddies wrote this remake of the 1978 Warren Beatty film Heaven Can Wait, which was itself a reimagining of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Yet for all the liberties Rock takes with the concept, he makes shockingly few innovations. Like the worst Adam Sandler or Martin Lawrence films, there’s no direction or theme to anything going on here. It’s joke and plot point, rinse and repeat, and it’s neither funny nor absorbing enough to sustain interest.
Rock plays Lance, a bike messenger and standup comedian who’s funny in person but freezes whenever he gets onstage. Lance wants a spot on the final bill at the soon-to-be-closed Apollo, but his plans get crimped when he’s run over by a truck. He wakes up in heaven, where a sort of general manager named Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri) regretfully informs him that a doofy angel (Eugene Levy) took him from Earth before his time.
The plot is familiar to those who know Heaven Can Wait, but those who don’t will either be mystified or angered by the logic gaps in this reworking of Elaine May’s screenplay. Down to Earth is a lazy affair, with the filmmakers content to skim in about 10 minutes what it took nearly an hour to explain and nurture in Heaven Can Wait—namely, the intricacies of this elaborate body-switching scenario that eventually finds Lance inhabiting the still-warm corpse of Charles Wellington III, a billionaire who’s shutting down a hospital supported by Sontee (Regina King), a hot community activist.
Wellington was almost murdered by his wife and her lover. When Lance takes over the body, he begins to sweat Sontee while still pursuing that spot at the Apollo, this time as an old white guy.
Where Heaven Can Wait used football, Down to Earth uses standup comedy. It’s an interesting innovation, but also a necessary one if this formulaic film is to have even a pinch of redeeming value. Rock gets to spend plenty of time in his strongest forum, and the material we hear is mostly funny, if not nearly on a par with his peerless HBO specials. Almost everything else in this film is confusing, dull or simply too PG-13 to mesh with Rock’s R-rated skills.
Rock is left to deliver one-liners while everything else sags. Still, some of the supporting performances are strong: Wanda Sykes, another wonderful standup comic and a regular on the late, great Chris Rock Show, is good as a maid, while Jennifer Coolidge is something hilariously grotesque and unsettling as Wellington’s trophy wife.
Comic potential is squandered in Down to Earth at a rate usually reserved for fossil fuels or the rain forest. We rarely glimpse the old white guy whose body Lance inhabits (where we see Rock, everybody in the film sees the old guy), so the easiest reaction laughs are few and far between. We don’t get to enjoy the wonderfully incongruous spectacle of a beautiful black woman falling for a fat, balding white billionaire who talks like Chris Rock.
We should expect more from Chris Rock than this reheated pile of cliches and slothful storytelling. Until he can make a film that lives up to the standard he sets behind a microphone, perhaps he should just stick to the many things he does better. If Richard Pryor could do it all over again, he might feel the same way.
Down to Earth (PG-13) HH Directed by Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz. Starring Chris Rock, Regina King, Chazz Palminteri.