Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Down to Earth (2001)
Studio Line: Paramount Home Entertainment - A story of premature reincarnation.

Acclaimed as "the funniest man in America," Chris Rock delivers a first-rate performance in this romantic comedy about a man who gets a second chance at life and love. Struggling black comic Lance Barton (Rock) knows what it's like to die on stage. But when his life takes an unexpected turn - straight to heaven - Lance is sure there's been a mistake. Miraculously, he's right! An angel tells Lance he was taken prematurely but assures him he can be returned to Earth - in the aged body of a ruthless white billionaire. In this improbable reincarnation Lance begins a hilarious quest to realize his showbiz dream and, along the way, discovers the person he never imagined he could be.

Director: Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz
Cast: Chris Rock, Regina King, Mark Addy, Eugene Levy, Frankie Faison, Greg Germann, Jennifer Coolidge, Chazz Palminteri
Box Office: Budget: $30 million. Opening Weekend: $20.027 million (2521 screens). Domestic Gross: $64.172 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Surround 2.0, French Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - double layered; 14 chapters; rated PG-13; 87 min.; $29.99; street date 7/10/01.
Supplements: Down to Earth: A Look Inside” Documentary; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/B/C-

Although Chris Rock’s film performances never really bothered me, I can’t say that I thought they usually worked terribly well. At best, he could be moderately compelling, but at worst he could provide a distracting presence. Rock’s a fine comedian, but he has yet to prove any solid acting chops. For example, I thought his turn as the 13th apostle in Dogma was too broad and forced.

Rock displayed some of the same tendencies in 2001’s Down to Earth. At times, he seemed to connect more with his sketch-comedy roots on Saturday Night Live than as a true actor. However, I thought that Rock provided a surprisingly winning personality during the film, and though it was a bit of a dud as a whole, he made it reasonably entertaining.

Down to Earth remakes 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, which itself was a reworking of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan. In the newest iteration, Rock plays aspiring comedian Lance Barton. He’s the comic version of the shower singer; he can work his act well when there’s no pressure, but once he gets in front of a prominent audience, he loses any skill. For Lance, his roadblock is the Apollo Theater’s famous amateur night; he’s flopped in front of those folks so frequently that they know him as “Booey”.

After another bad evening, a truck hits Lance and he’s killed - sort of. It seems that the angel who came to take him away acted too quickly; Lance would have survived the accident were it not for the overefficiency of Keyes (Eugene Levy). As it happens, Lance isn’t supposed to die for more than 40 years, and though Heaven looks like a fun place, he’s bound and determined to return to Earth and succeed at the Apollo, especially since the old place is about to be razed; there’s one last amateur night, and Lance desperately wants one of the five slots.

At this point, the story has stretched credulity many ways. For one, the Apollo’s such a landmark that I seriously doubt it’s going anywhere to make place for another multiplex. Also, if Lance wasn’t supposed to die, why was Keyes there to take him to Heaven? Things don’t improve after this point. Lance meets Keyes’ boss Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri). King agrees to let Lance return to Earth in a new body, and after an extensive search, he selects wealthy old dude Charles Wellington (Brian Rhodes). The skin isn’t his style, but by an extreme coincidence, Wellington is being badgered by cute Sontee (Regina King), a woman for whom Lance has the hots; Wellington’s penny-pinching hospital policies have incurred the wrath of the community, and Sontee’s out to make a change.

This connection convinces Lance to take Wellington’s body, at least as a loaner until King and Keyes can find a more suitable replacement. Of course, the personality of a young black man in the body of an old white guy causes some ripples, but most people like the new, loose Wellington. He treats his staff better, and he makes positive waves with Sontee. However, his wife (Jennifer Coolidge) and his assistant Sklar (Greg Germann) are having an affair, and they were the ones who killed Wellington in the first place. As such, they’re none too happy about this turn of events, and their sentiments are shared by the board of a hospital owned by Wellington, especially when he declares a disinterest in its profits.

The film maintains a few different plot points, as we see how Lance tries to woo Sontee, improve things at the hospital, and get into the amateur night at the Apollo. However, none of these really matter, as the movie remains Rock’s show. Though the film shows some of his stand-up routines, none of these were particularly impressive. Frankly, even when he was supposed to be good, his material seemed lackluster. However, Rock was much more entertaining when he bombed; it was fun to see Rock purposefully stink up the joint.

Surprisingly, Rock offered a genuinely warm presence in DTE. His emotional range still needs a lot of work, but I thought he pulled off the character’s various feelings acceptably well. Put simply, he carried the film, as without him, it would have been a total dud. Rock may not be an accomplished actor, but he seemed engaging and reasonably believable here.

Otherwise, Down to Earth had a lot of problems. Directors Paul and Chris Weitz did a nice job with their debut film, 1999’s American Pie, but they created a mess here. The story became almost incoherent as plot lines and supporting characters pop in and out of the movie at random. It felt as though someone edited DTE with a weed-whacker; huge chunks appeared to be missing as the flick hopped from bit to bit without much reason.

Surprisingly, the movie downplayed the “fish out of water” aspects that could have been created through more shots of the real Wellington. Although Lance - and the audience - only saw Rock, all of the other characters viewed Rhodes. On occasion, we’re given a glimpse of Rhodes as he acts out the part, but the vast majority of the movie showed Rock in the part.

This seemed like an odd way to blow off the comedic elements that could have appeared, and it really felt like the filmmakers went out of their way to avoid shots of Rhodes. Perhaps he simply did a poor job in the role and they needed to hide this. However, I think this occurred because the scenes in which we saw Rhodes as Wellington easily could have become creepy. It was hard enough to swallow the prospect that sexy young Regina King would fall for this fat old guy; the more we saw him, the less believable - and the more disturbing - it became.

Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the filmmakers altered one aspect of Wellington’s biography to make this situation seem less nasty. At one point, we’re told that Wellington was 53 years old. I couldn’t discover Rhodes’ age, but he looked to be much older than 53; frankly, the guy appeared to be pushing 70. The age of 53 made his overtures to 30-year-old King appear less distasteful, I suppose.

Whatever the case may have been, Down to Earth was a mess of a movie. However, for all its flaws - and it had many - I thought it seemed to be fairly entertaining simply due to the presence of Chris Rock. He offered a surprisingly charming and light performance that gave me new respect for his abilities. I don’t know if his work overcame the film’s many drawbacks, but I felt Down to Earth remained reasonably enjoyable nonetheless.

The DVD:

Down to Earth appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though the movie always remained watchable, I thought the picture presented a surprising number of concerns for such a recent film.

Call it a victim of the Weitz curse, for the only prior directorial effort from brothers Chris and Paul - 1999’s hit American Pie - also offered a startlingly high number of problems. For DTE, the image generally seemed to be adequately sharp, but some scenes displayed modest softness. At times the picture became rather fuzzy and hazy, and this occurred for no apparent reason. Moiré effects weren’t an issue, but I did see occasional examples of jagged edges; mainly those appeared due to hat brims.

Colors largely seemed to be accurate, but I felt they came across as moderately drab and muddled at times. The movie included a lot of scenes that should have appeared reasonably bright and vivid, such as those at nightclubs. However, even during those circumstances, hues looked somewhat bland and flat, and they never seemed as vibrant as they should have been. For the most part, colors displayed acceptable clarity and depth, but they still seemed to be a bit weak.

Black levels seemed to be fairly deep and dense, but shadow detail showed some concerns. Many filmmakers have trouble lighting for dark-skinned actors, and that issue appeared to affect DTE. That problem is annoying enough in any circumstance, but when the leads are African-Americans, it becomes even more egregious; if they can’t light for the film’s stars, something’s definitely wrong.

However, since American Pie was also rather dimly-lit, I won’t put the blame on racial insensitivities; for whatever reason, the Weitz boys simply seem to like dark movies. In any case, I thought this made shadow detail appear rather thick and flat. Low-light scenes often were too dark, and this situation was exacerbated by the skin color of the leads; it could occasionally be difficult to make out their faces.

Print flaws were rather heavy for a movie that hit screens four months ago. Throughout the film, I noticed light grain plus various examples of speckles, grit, and small nicks. While these were never excessive, they seemed awfully prevalent for such a recent flick. Ultimately, none of the concerns ruined the affair, and many parts of the film actually looked pretty good. However, Down to Earth presented a surprisingly weak visual experience.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Down to Earth offered a rather low-key affair. The forward spectrum received the greatest emphasis throughout the film, as the front channels offered modest ambience. I found those speakers to provide a nicely natural accompaniment to the action, but there wasn’t much of note to discuss. Some sounds - such as cars - panned cleanly from channel to channel, and a few scenes - such as those at the Apollo or at nightclubs - offered somewhat more lively environments, but this remained a quiet and subdued track.

Music became the most dominant aspect of the track. The score spread nicely to all five channels and showed good stereo separation. The music provided the most active elements from the surrounds, as I heard decent reinforcement of these elements from the rear. Some mild ambient effects also cropped up in the surrounds, but these were rather modest.

Audio quality seemed to be consistently good. Dialogue always sounded natural and distinct, and I heard no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were generally a minor factor, but they appeared clear and accurate at all times, and I heard no distortion or other problems. Music was also nicely bright and vivid, and the score displayed acceptably positive dynamic range. I didn’t detect terrific low end throughout the movie, but bass response seemed to be fairly rich and warm. As a whole, the soundtrack of Down to Earth provided a satisfying but unspectacular auditory experience.

Down to Earth provides only a couple of minor extras. We get Down to Earth: A Look Inside, a short compendium of interview snippets. During this 10-minute piece, we hear from directors Chris and Paul Weitz plus actors Chris Rock, Regina King, Chazz Palminteri, Eugene Levy, Frankie Faison and Wanda Sykes. Clips from the movie appear as well.

Quite a few Paramount DVDs include these little interview packages, and many of them are fairly dull conglomerations of praise. Every once in a while a good one comes along - such as the pieces for Chinatown and Tucker - but these are unusual. Unfortunately, “A Look Inside” fell into the bland category. It offers a little information about the project’s genesis, but mostly we just learn how great everyone is. Fans of the film may enjoy the minor insight, but as a whole, this was an uncompelling program.

In addition, the DVD features the film’s theatrical trailer. This clip was somewhat useful just because it includes some unused footage. When Lance is in Heaven, we see a little more of his interaction with King and Keyes. However, it does sort of give away the movie’s ending, for which it loses some points.

As a film, Down to Earth offered a decidedly mixed bag. Most of it was a mess, as the story flopped about almost incoherently. However, the movie featured a solid cast, and Chris Rock provided a surprisingly warm and effective turn as the lead. The DVD provided a rather drab image plus simple sound and few extras. With a list price of $29.99, I can’t really endorse a purchase of Down to Earth, but fans of Chris Rock may want to give it a rental.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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