Down to Earth

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

DOWN TO EARTH

2/10

USA 2001
director : Chris & Paul Weitz
script : Chris Rock, Lance Crouther, Ali Le Roi, Louis CL
(based on film Heaven Can Wait by Elaine May, Warren Beatty, from a play by Harry Segall)
cinematography : Richard Crudo
editing : Priscilla Nedd Friendly
lead actors : Chris Rock, Chazz Palmintieri, Regina King, Mark Addy
87 minutes

When’s on form, Chris Rock can be America’s sharpest comic. Not that you’d never guess it from this spectacularly unsuitable vehicle, a witless remake of Warren Beatty’s seventies smash Heaven Can Wait. Struggling stand-up Lance (Rock) dreams of appearing at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre before its imminent closure. But he’s knocked down and killed by a truck, and one of those pesky bungles in heavenly bureaucracy returns him to Earth as a tubby, 50-year-old WASP billionaire. While we (bizarrely) still see Rock, to everyone else he’s an ‘old white guy’ with new-found social conscience and addiction to gangsta rap – more Beatty echoes, namely the far superior Bulworth.

After a few prominent supporting turns, Rock was clearly ready to try his hand at a starring role. And this material must have seemed a relatively safe choice – it comes with a solid box-office pedigree, both Beatty’s movie (the notoriously shrewd star selected it as his directorial debut) and the 1941 version Here Comes Mr Jordan scoring decent returns.* But fancy pedigree or no, the story is a very old-fashioned breed of cinematic dog, when what Rock really needed was a wild showcase for his anarching, cutting-edge wit and smartness. The rusty mechanics of the plot require him to be a terrible comic who can’t get a laugh, and later embark on a soppy love affair with a nobler-than-noble healthcare campaigner (King), and it’s a tough call to say where he’s more unconvincing. Looking on the bright side, if Down To Earth can take $65m in the US alone, who knows how well Rock will fare if he gets a decent director and script to work with?

A script, for instance, in which the black entertainment community doesn’t just blithely accept the cultural-landmark Apollo is to be turned into a multiplex cinema. This unthinkably outrageous event could only possibly work if the whole movie was pitched in terms of zany satire, but Down To Earth goes the opposite route, cynically grafting on a subplot about the privatisation of a community hospital. Such cheap anti-big-business rhetoric is pretty hard to take coming from a major Hollywood studio, and comes off feeling as opportunistic as the inevitable rap-heavy soundtrack.

The Weitz brothers struck miraculously lucky with American Pie, but on the evidence of Down To Earth they’re essentially scriptwriters fortunate enough to also direct every now and again – Sam Raimi, the Farrellys and, to a lesser extent, the Coens fall into the same category. Here, they screw up any scene involving street extras in general and homeless people in particular: these are often handy litmus tests for basic ability behind the camera. In such leaden hands, there’s no chance of any kind of zip or spark being injected into a shoddy script on which four different writers apparently toiled. On the most charitable count, that works out at one decent joke apiece.

*Oddly enough, Down To Earth borrows its title from the one time the story failed to connect with the public, the 1947 musical now chiefly remembered for Rita Hayworth’s scene-stealing supporting turn as the goddess Terpsichore.

5th June, 2001