Down to Earth was in and out of theaters after only about three weeks. To audiences, it was a throwaway comedy, hardly worth noticing. Unfortunately, I’d have to agree, although there were a few bright moments in this latest Chris Rock comedy.
Heaven Can Wait Some More
Down to Earth is the third incarnation of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (the second being Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait). Lance Barton (Chris Rock) is killed early on and taken to Heaven, which in this movie is a hip, swinging nightclub, managed by Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri).
Lance’s guardian angel Mr. Keyes (Eugene Levy) confesses that he made a mistake, and that Lance wasn’t really supposed to die yet. Unfortunately, his body is already gone, but Mr. King has authorized Mr. Keyes to offer him a range of alternatives that might suit him.
He decides to take the body of a wealthy white man, due to “die” in a matter of minutes at the hands of his gold-digging wife. A moment after the poison kicks in, Lance jumps in and becomes Charles Wellington.
Where Beatty was a struggling football player in Heaven Can Wait, Rock is a struggling comic. Where Beatty used his new wealth for football training, Rock uses his new money for a spot on the bill at the Apollo comedy club.
Discarding the Race Card
The film could have been explosively controversial and more successful if it had played the race card more aggressively. There are only one or two shots, never more than a few seconds long, of an old, pudgy white man rapping, getting funky, and talking about the troubles of being black in America.
One brief shot in one too-short scene could have really broken this movie open, if only it had played differently. Lance is on stage, running through his usual routine that never fails to get laughs. Picture Chris Rock carrying on about how black people are treated in shopping malls. Only it’s not Chris Rock. It’s a privileged white man, apparently mocking the black audience. The irony of that scene alone is rich enough to make three movies. In the hands of an angry young Spike Lee, it could have been revolutionary.
But instead, the filmmakers backed off. They showed Lance as the older white man for only a fraction of a second, jumping immediately back to Lance as Chris Rock. The scene asks us for sympathy for the failure of Rock’s character, rather than riling us up about the seriousness of the social injustice and institutional racism still rampant in America.
Reaching for Heaven
But this movie was never meant to be that serious or angry, because it was too kind-hearted. Lance as Wellington befriends his household staff and gives them raises. On his first day at work as a hospital CEO, he rails against heartless corporations, including his own. He promises health care to everyone who comes, even if they can’t pay (“If your head is bloody, we’re your buddy”).
It’s just too bad that something with so much potential was forgotten at the box office. It’s especially too bad because the film deserved it.