“Down to Earth” is a very earthbound comic fantasy, a racially flip-flopped “Heaven Can Wait” redo stuck in a purgatory with just enough meager laughs to keep it from a more fiery fate. Chris Rock’s first solo flight as an above-the-title movie star should attract his large fan base for a good opening during this conspicuously mirthless period. Solid mid-range B.O. is its likeliest destination, although it could climb higher, as “Big Momma’s House” reps only the most recent proof that even a very mediocre picture can go through the roof if it hits the public’s funny bone the right way.
Directed by Chris and Paul Weitz with even less finesse than they displayed on their grossout debut farce, “American Pie,” a big teen hit that didn’t exactly require grace or style, “Earth” marks the third cinematic go-round for playwright Harry Segall’s whimsical tale of a young man who, called to heaven before his time, is allowed to return to live out his allotted years in the body of someone else who has just died.
In the enormously popular “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” in 1941, Robert Montgomery played a boxer who assumes the mortal coil of a wealthy playboy who’s been murdered by his wife and her lover. In the equally successful “Heaven Can Wait” in 1978, Warren Beatty was a pro football quarterback who came back in the guise of an industrialist to romance Julie Christie.
This time around, Rock plays — what else? — a standup comic, albeit a pathetic one who, in the opening scene, is booed off the Apollo stage on amateur night. Hardly knowing what hit him (a truck, actually), hapless Lance Barton lands in heaven, which, in one of the film’s few witty touches, has been reimagined as an ultra-trendy nightclub where hot chicks automatically get in. Informed that his flunky (Eugene Levy) has made a mistake by prematurely bringing Lance to the hereafter, heaven’s “king” (Chazz Palminteri in a role previously played by Claude Rains and James Mason) apologetically offers to send the kid back to New York City. But since his body is no longer available, Lance will have to slip into the skin of a rich old white tycoon, Charles Wellington, whose wife (Jennifer Coolidge) and right-hand man (Greg Germann) have just bumped him off.
The rich and even the old parts of the equation are OK with Lance, but the white part is w-e-i-r-d, and it’s on this one joke of a black man stuck in a white man’s body that the entire picture rides from here on. Narratively, screenplay by Rock and his regular standup writers Lance Crouther, Ali Le Roi and Louis CK takes Lance/Wellington through a tame romance with Sontee (Regina King), an activist who’s leading the fight against the mogul’s purportedly heinous business practices, and some sparring with Wellington’s perplexed wife and assistant, when all he really wants to do is get one more crack at the Apollo.
Unfortunately, the entire premise is something of a cheat, at least as played out here in black-and-white terms. Although the earlier two film versions of the story required the audience to accept that the dead man could “pass” in the body of another, the imaginative leap involved here is rather more dramatic. By rights, Lance should actually be “seen” in the body of the white man, since that’s the way others perceive him. This only happens a few times, however, and only at moments when Lance/Wellington is acting so “black” (as when grooving to some music or singing/talking trash) that other black characters can only be astounded at what they see and hear.
These quick cutaways to the old white man doing Chris Rock shtick spark the picture’s biggest laughs, but they also undermine the credibility of the central romance, among other major plot points; would Sontee really become vulnerable to the charms of old Wellington the way she (as opposed to the audience) sees him, and would black audiences respond to Lance’s newfound comic talents if it were a stuffy-looking white guy up onstage? Tellingly, there are no cutaways during these interludes, and certainly no thought to using two skilled comic actors to capitalize on the dual body joke, as best exemplified by the Steve Martin-Lily Tomlin “All of Me.” But then this is a Chris Rock vehicle, after all.
Granted, none of this will matter to auds predisposed to laugh at more or less anything the star does, and they no doubt will go along for the ride. But viewers thus far unpersuaded of Rock’s brilliance will not be converted by what they see here, which is a pretty sloppy comedy with a very light sprinkling of laughs or even chuckles. Rock himself seems to veer naturally toward a rather strident delivery style and would have needed a stronger directorial hand to guide him toward a modulated, remotely emotional performance. Supporting perfs are similarly one-note.
Pic could have benefited from some extra effort on the visual side to distinguish it as a fantasy, but none is forthcoming, as it has a dull, rather murky look. Soundtrack of tunes, hip-hop and otherwise, reps a promotable plus, and the brief running time was thoughtful.