At The Movies: 'Down To Earth'

EntertainmentMoviesEugene LevyChris Rock

The main question to ask when pondering Chris Rock's new movie, "Down to Earth," is: Why?

Why bother remaking "Heaven Can Wait"? Warren Beatty's 1978 comedy — itself a remake of 1941's "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" — was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including best picture, and it still holds up beautifully today.

So it's truly mind-boggling trying to figure out the logic behind doing it all over again. But, given the proliferation of remakes and rip-offs in Hollywood lately ("Sweet November" and "Double Take" immediately come to mind), such a lack of creativity should come as no surprise.

Even the movie posters are nearly identical — where Beatty stands among the clouds with his right foot crossed over his left, dressed in gray sweat pants, Rock stands in the same pose wearing a gray suit. Come on, people!

The differences are slight and few.

Rock substitutes Beatty's Rams quarterback, Joe Pendleton, for a stand-up comic from Brooklyn named Lance Barton (so, essentially, he plays himself). Like Joe, Lance gets yanked up to heaven too soon by an overzealous angel (Eugene Levy). But instead of Los Angeles, we're in New York, and instead of Joe's big game against Dallas, Lance is getting ready for an audition at the Apollo Theater.

To make up for the error, head angel Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri) places Lance temporarily in the body of the wealthy, old and very white Charles Wellington. The racial divide is supposed to be a huge source of laughs; basically, it consists of Lance, in Wellington's body, jamming awkwardly to rap songs by DMX and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Ha!

Joe Pendleton, in the body of Leo Farnsworth, had the feisty Betty Logan (Julie Christie) pestering him to pull his destructive corporation from her tiny English town. Lance must deal with Sontee Jenkins (Regina King), who begs him not to privatize a Brooklyn hospital. And just like Joe, Lance falls in love in the process.

But let's get to the differences that really matter.

Much of the appeal of "Heaven Can Wait" lies in Beatty's laid-back approach. His Joe isn't happy about dying too soon — he has a big game to get ready for, after all — but he charms his way down to earth and takes every obstacle in stride.

Rock is painfully aware of the camera — constantly mugging, eyes bugged out, his self-pleased toothy smile taking up half his face. He doesn't act so much as scream his lines in spite of the people around him. Giant chunks of the movie are devoted to his stand-up routine, and those are the only funny parts.

And in the original film, sly, small moments were memorable because of their subtlety. Joe does push-ups while he waits for the angels to find him a body, his head popping up slightly from the clouds over and over. Nothing is subtle about "Down to Earth." Everything is loud and obvious.

Paul and Chris Weitz directed the movie, and they're among the six — count 'em — screenwriters, including Rock. Until now, the up-and-coming Weitz brothers had done so well. They co-directed "American Pie" and co-starred in last year's acclaimed "Chuck & Buck."

Do yourself a favor. If you get the urge to see "Down to Earth," head to the video store and rent "Heaven Can Wait" instead.

"Down to Earth," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for language, sexual humor and some drug references. Running time: 88 minutes.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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