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(2001) (Chris Rock, Regina King) (PG-13)

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Comedy: A black amateur comedian tries to win the girl of his dreams and a comedy gig after being mistakenly called to Heaven too soon and then returned to Earth in the body of a rich and much older, white Manhattan mogul.
Lance Barton (CHRIS ROCK) is a black bicycle courier and aspiring comedian whose material isn't that funny, much to the dismay of his seasoned comedy manager, Whitney Daniels (FRANKIE FAISON). Nonetheless, Lance wants one of the coveted amateur spots on the last night of operation for the famed Apollo Theater.

Unfortunately, he doesn't get that chance when a Heaven sent emissary, Mr. Keyes (EUGENE LEVY), accidentally calls him up to Heaven decades before his time. Not surprisingly, Lance is none too pleased by this development and gets Keyes' boss, Mr. King (CHAZZ PALMINTERI), to return him to Earth. Since his old body is no longer available, however, King temporarily puts Lance into the body of Charles Wellington, one of the richest, but most ruthless businessmen in America, who happens to be white.

Although Lance still appears the same to himself, everyone else - including Cisco (MARK ADDY) the butler and Wanda (WANDA SYKES) the maid - still see him as Wellington, but wonder if he's gone off the deep end with his new and bizarre behavior. Even more troubled are Wellington's wife, Amber (JENNIFER COOLIDGE) and personal assistant, Winston Sklar (GREG GERMANN), who are not only having an affair, but were the ones who tried to poison him, thus making his body available to Lance.

As Lance quickly learns all of this, he also meets Sontee Jenkins (REGINA KING), a woman who's set out to disrupt Wellington's life after he's announced plans to privatize a community hospital. Lance is immediately smitten with Sontee, but all she initially sees is a mean, older white man who's public enemy number one.

Soon, Lance sets out to correct Wellington's past mistakes and woo Sontee, all while still trying to land one of the amateur comedian gigs at the Apollo and keeping Keyes and King from ruining all of those plans.

OUR TAKE: 2.5 out of 10
Back in 1941, a delightful and imaginative film titled "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" was released and immediately caught both the critics and public's fancy. Based on a play by Harry Segall, the comedy - that starred Robert Montgomery as a boxer called up to Heaven by mistake and then put back on Earth, but in another body, by the titular character played by Claude Rains - was a smashing success and earned seven Oscar nominations (including for Best Picture) and won two for the original story and screenplay.

Thirty-five years later, cinema purists were horrified to hear that someone had the audacity to remake the film. Yet, the new version - now called "Heaven Can Wait" (with no connection to a 1943 film of the same name) and co-directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry and co-written by Beatty and Elaine May- proved that with the passage of time and just the right talent in front of and behind the camera (that collectively earned nine Oscar nominations with one win for art/set direction), a remake could be just as good and enjoyable as the original. In fact, it ranks up there with my all-time favorite films.

Now, twenty-three years after that picture, a group of filmmakers are hoping that lightning can strike three times as they recycle that initial story once again in "Down to Earth," a comedy designed to give standup comedian turned actor Chris Rock his first starring role.

Working from Beatty and May's version of the story, co-directors and brothers Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz (who directed "American Pie" and wrote "Antz") and screenwriters Rock, Lance Crouther, Ali Le Roi & Louis CK (all comedy writers making their major feature film debut) have obviously updated and adapted the material for more modern times. The question remains, however, whether digging up a classic that was based on an unearthed classic itself was a smart move.

The answer is that lighting has struck again, but this time in the painful and destructive way that must have fried the filmmakers' minds to think they could get away with this. For not only is the film a mostly unimaginative and pale imitation of Beatty's version, but it's pretty much a poorly executed comedy in general.

Regarding that first matter, I suppose we must resign ourselves to the truth that remakes of old films and TV shows are as inevitable as death, taxes and trips to the dentist. As such, one can only hope that if they're going to be done, at least the end result will be worthwhile in some fashion. Unfortunately, and unless you're a diehard Chris Rock fan, that's not the case here.

When recycling such old material, filmmakers have the option of spoofing or lampooning the original (as occurred in "The Brady Bunch Movie"), making an almost exact replica (such as Gus Van Sant's version of "Psycho"), or using the original material as a starting point and then updating it to fit more common times and mentality (as was done with the "King Kong" remake). The latter is usually the preferred method since it allows the most flexibility while not degrading the original, but the way that it's done in this film will have those who are fans of or are just familiar with "Heaven Can Wait" constantly noticing the unflattering similarities.

While some things have been changed - the protagonist is now an amateur comedian rather than a pro football quarterback who must deal with his new, old body standing in the way of achieving his goal - so many bits have been left intact that the efforts constantly feel like unappetizing and lukewarm leftovers.

The film's artistic problems certainly don't help matters, especially when one becomes so bored/dismayed with the new version that the mind can't be stopped from going into comparative mode), but it's rather bad when any film constantly reminds viewers of a previous and obviously far better made picture. Here, so many elements - and even bits of dialogue -- are lifted and recycled time and again from the earlier film and ungracefully plopped into this one.

While all of that creates a huge handicap the film can't overcome - especially when one goes another step further and compares the two film's various characters and related performances in what are essentially the same roles -- what's worse is that most everything related to this film misfires. The comedic and basic storytelling timing is all off, with the only decent gag - of a young, black comedian being stuck in an older white man's body -- being run into the ground and other comedic opportunities for clever and imaginative humor constantly being missed.

Worse yet, however, is the performance by Chris Rock ("Nurse Betty," "Lethal Weapon 4") as the protagonist. While he can be funny in acerbic, supporting roles and doing his standup comedy bits, he clearly doesn't have what it takes to carry a film, especially when this one's few dramatic moments come calling.

The filmmakers apparently could sense this and appropriately made him play - you better sit down cuz this is going to come as a shock - a struggling standup comedian. The fun of the earlier film was in seeing Beatty's character applying his football knowledge into the boardroom and then bucking the odds in turning his new body into a Super Bowl caliber quarterback. Here, there's little such conflict for Lance. In fact, the film seems like just an excuse to let Rock loose on his typical rant-filled tangents - of which there are several - yet they're surprisingly mediocre when it comes to being funny.

Watching this strained performance, all I could think of was the likes of Norm MacDonald, another gifted comedian when it comes to certain forms of comedy, but a performer who couldn't act himself out of a corner if his life depended on it. Yet, he was also inexplicably given the lead in not one, but several films.

Regina King ("How Stella Got Her Groove Back," "Jerry Maguire") fairs a great deal better from a straight thespian standpoint, but her character - an update of the one played by Julie Christie in the original (who admittedly was somewhat stiff in it) - isn't particularly developed. To make matters worse, the chemistry between her and Rock is rather flat and lacking in the necessary sparks to have us rooting for the sad, yet happy ending that, yes, is pretty much directly lifted from "Heaven."

The rest of the performances are similarly flat or over exaggerated and don't come close to the brilliance of those found in Beatty's film. Frankie Faison ("The Thomas Crown Affair," "The Rich Man's Wife"), Eugene Levy ("Best in Show," "American Pie") and Chazz Palminteri ("Analyze This," "Bullets Over Broadway") clearly aren't of the same caliber as Jack Warden, Buck Henry and James Mason in what are essentially the same roles.

Even worse, Greg Germann ("Sweet November," TV's "Ally McBeal") and Jennifer Coolidge ("Best in Show," "The Broken Hearts Club") do an absolutely poor and unflattering imitation of the terrific performances given by Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon in the earlier picture, while Mark Addy ("The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas," "The Full Monty") and Wanda Sykes ("Nutty Professor II: The Klumps") only do some meager comic riffs on the stereotypical dignified butler and constantly complaining maid characters.

In essence, all of them, like the rest of the film, are nothing but pale comparisons and there's simply no way that this film will ever be considered in the same regard or class as "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" or "Heaven Can Wait." If you disagree, take a look at the 2001 Oscar nominees and see how many "Down to Earth" receives. If there's one good thing that can be said about this meagerly amusing film, it's that it will at least prevent future filmmakers from dredging up this story yet one more time. This failed effort rates as just a 2.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 12, 2001 / Posted February 16, 2001

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