A story of premature reincarnation.
1978's Heaven Can Wait starred Warren Beatty as a football player reincarnated into a rich man's body. The film was a smash hit, garnering nine Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. Heaven Can Wait was a remake of the classic 1941 film, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, so it sounded like a decent idea when American Pie directors Chris and Paul Weitz decided to remake it again, this time starring popular comedian Chris Rock. Unfortunately Down to Earth doesn't live up to its predecessors. A disappointment in theaters, Down to Earth is reincarnated on DVD thanks to Paramount Home Video.
Struggling black comedian Lance Barton (Rock) is nicknamed "Booey" for his tendency to get booed off the stage at the famed Apollo Theater Amateur Night. Despite the support of his manager Whitney (Frankie Faison of Hannibal), Lance isn't comfortable being himself on stage and it shows. When a truck ends Lance's career prematurely, he goes straight to heaven, an infinite nightclub managed by an angel named King (Chazz Palminteri) and his sidekick Keyes (Eugene Levy). King offers Lance a chance to return to Earth in the body of another man: rich bigoted millionaire Charles Wellington III. Wellington's been murdered by his wife (Best In Show's Jennifer Coolidge) and her lover (Greg Germann of "Ally McBeal"). Despite the fact that he's in a white man's body, Lance enjoys the perks of being a millionaire. His company plans to privatize Brooklyn Community Hospital, despite heavy protests by the beautiful Sontee Jenkins. Lance reverses the company's plans, and he and Sontee fall in love, despite the fact that he looks like an old white dude. But what Lance really wants is to be a hit at the Apollo before it closes its doors forever. He convinces Whitney of his real identity, and they temper his act for his new body. King arrives to remind Lance that he is only in Wellington's body temporarily. But if Lance gives up Wellington's body he risks losing Sontee and his big shot at the Apollo.
In the interview portion of the disc, Chris Rock reveals that Warren Beatty originally conceived the starring role in Heaven Can Wait for Muhammad Ali. Indeed the subject matter of Heaven Can Wait and Down to Earth is the perfect vehicle for a funny look at race issues. Unfortunately, Down to Earth doesn't deliver because it shies away from the interesting racial implications of Lance's predicament. When Lance enters the body of a rich old white guy, he needs no period of adjustment. He isn't conflicted at all about being in white skin. He actually enjoys it. Lance ultimately learns to be comfortable being himself while he is a white man. This is unrealistic at best and offensive at worst. Late in the film, when Lance is returned to a black body, he is overjoyed. But this seems like false sentiment since he had no real conflict with being a white guy in the first place. It would've been a more interesting journey for the character if he had started out hating his white body, and struggled with his own prejudices against whites. As is, Lance is a goody-two-shoes who only uses the power of his new body for the good of his fellow man. He's a bore.
A few good moments play with racial politics. When Lance gets on stage in Wellington's body for the first time, his "black" act offends the entire crowd. At a coffee shop, Lance makes the mistake of singing the lyrics to a rap song and gets beat up. But these moments are few and far between. It's almost as if Chris and Paul Weitz are trying to downplay the race issue and soften the material. This is surprising since American Pie was a pretty risqué film and Chris Rock is usually a very edgy comic. The film struggles for life around Rock's solid stand-up material, which is really the highlight. But fans would do better to watch "The Chris Rock Show" and his comedy specials to see better examples of his work. As I watched the film, I couldn't help but to think it would've been more interesting if a white bigot had entered Rock's body. This would've given Rock the chance to play something other than himself and might've made a funnier movie.
Down to Earth is presented in its original aspect ratio, an anamorphic 1.85:1. This is a very clean transfer, with little to complain about. Colors were solid and fleshtones accurate. I noticed no occurrences of digital artifacting. A very nice transfer by Paramount.
Down to Earth is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. It's a very good sound mix, though like most comedies it rarely stretches the capabilities of the format. Dialogue is very clear and that's what is most important for a film like this. Also included are alternate English and French surround options as well as English subtitles.
The disc also contains "Down to Earth: A Look Inside," a ten-minute featurette with interviews with the directors and stars of the film. This feature is too short to give an in-depth analysis of the film, and I'm glad. The theatrical trailer is presented in widescreen and features several moments that didn't make the final cut of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are not a lot of good things to say about Down to Earth, but one of them is this: it has a terrific supporting cast. Chazz Palminteri and Eugene Levy are great as usual. Also Mark Addy (The Full Monty) is very good as Wellington's "English" butler. Wanda Sykes of The Chris Rock Show is also hysterical as Wellington's cranky maid. Too bad we didn't get to see more of the supporting cast.
If Down to Earth sounds a little interesting, check out Heaven Can Wait or Here Comes Mr. Jordan instead. Paramount has given this film better DVD treatment than it deserves.
Guilty! Down to Earth can go back up!
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• Theatrical Trailer
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