With Eddie Murphy (The Klumps) and Martin Lawrence (Big Momma's House) buried under piles of latex these days, it's nice to see Chris Rock apply his stringbean body to the art of movie comedy. Down to Earth, which is a remake of 1978's Heaven Can Wait (which was a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan), has Rock playing a poor black man stuck in a rich white man's body, and the whole performance is a sight gag. Rock isn't an especially physical comedian. In his standup act, he paces back and forth on the stage like a caged lion, but he doesn't really enact his routines. Instead, he allows his rat-a-tat-tat--or should I say rap-a-tap-tap?--vocal rhythms to anchor his style. Though his material can be quite conservative, Rock comes on like the Angry Young Man of contemporary black comedy. You have to check out what he's wearing--Calvin Klein suit, minimal jewelry--to realize he's more dapper than rapper. All of which might have played into the role of Lance Barton, which has been somewhat tailored to Rock's strengths as a comedian. In the 1941 version, Robert Montgomery was a professional boxer. In the 1978 version, Warren Beatty was a professional quarterback. In Down to Earth, Lance is a decidedly nonprofessional comedian who's literally blown off the stage at the Apollo Theatre by the sheer blast of boos that greets his performance. By the end, however, he's...well, he's Chris Rock, the hottest comedian around. Alas, there's the movie's middle portion, where Rock ventures out of his comfort zone into fish-out-of-water territory. Hit by a truck and sent to heaven, Lance is allowed to come back down to earth when it's revealed that the angel in charge--Eugene Levy, in a prom suit to end all prom suits--screwed up the timing. Lance's own body having presumably been cremated, he needs to find another. That he winds up inside Charles Wellington, a Park Avenue pooh-bah who's just been murdered by his wife (Jennifer Coolidge) and her lover (Greg Germann), gives Down to Earth more of a Trading Places than a Heaven Can Wait vibe. See Lance kick it with the butler and the maid. Watch him turn the tables on an all-white board of directors. Some of this stuff works, if only because the supporting cast has come ready to play. But the filmmakers (directors Chris and Paul Weitz, who brought us American Pie, and Rock, who wrote the script with his HBO crew) have missed a major opportunity, it seems to me, by giving us only glimpses of the Wellington everybody else sees: a tired old man who's never been north of the Guggenheim. Instead, we see mostly Rock, which makes sense, he being the star and all, but it does tend to cut down on the "play that funky music, white boy" jokes.
Of the jokes that are there, many of them seem to come from Rock's standup act--the who-needs-insurance rap off Bigger and Blacker, for example. Aside from the fact that, in my opinion, three out of the four Original Kings of Comedy would wipe the stage with Rock (although, like Lance, he's definitely improved over the years), Down to Earth would benefit from someone who's taken an acting class or two. In his romantic scenes with Regina King, Rock seems a little lost, as if he needs a whole audience to bounce his performance off of. "You're afraid of being yourself," someone tells Lance early on in the movie; and Rock, who dug his career out of its post-"Saturday Night Live" doldrums by cranking up the volume on his comedic persona, also seems a little afraid of being himself, reluctant to reveal the man behind the comedian. He has talent, drive, even charisma. Here's hoping Hollywood figures out how to use him.