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'Down to Earth'

Comedian goes to 'Heaven' with convincing remake, 'Down to Earth'

Friday, February 16, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Chris Rock's "Down to Earth" emerges a mere 23 years after the film upon which it is based, Warren Beatty's "Heaven Can Wait." But that movie came out 37 years after its progenitor, "Here Comes Mr. Jordan."

'Down To Earth'

RATING: PG-13 for language, sexual humor and some drug references.

PLAYERS: Chris Rock, Regina King.

DIRECTORS: Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz.

WEB SITE: www.iwasmade.html



Movie remakes have been with us at least since silent-film director Rex Ingram made "Trifling Women" in 1922, a toned-down version of his 1917 potboiler "Black Orchids." Some classic films were remakes of earlier versions -- John Huston's 1941 masterpiece "The Maltese Falcon" made everyone forget Roy Del Ruth's 1931 version with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade.

Other remakes are best forgotten, such as Gus Van Sant's 1999 shot-for-shot re-creation of "Psycho." Ideally, remakes of great films become memorable themselves, such as "The Seven Samurai" being Americanized into "The Magnificent Seven."

Still, film buffs often find themselves asking, "Is this remake really necessary?" Remember Liam Neeson in "The Haunting"? Matthew Broderick in "Godzilla"? Sylvester Stallone in "Get Carter"? Sharon Stone in "Diabolique"? Jessica Lange in "King Kong"? Marlon Brando in "Mutiny on the Bounty"? Yet every so often a film redeems the concept, like Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear" or David Cronenberg's "The Fly."

"Heaven Can Wait," filmed in an era before videocassettes and cable movie channels made old films readily available, updated a picture that had been released nearly 40 years earlier.

"Down to Earth" tailors the same material to the specific attributes of its star. Chris Rock gets laughs by ranting on various topics as a standup comic, on his HBO series (its writers co-wrote the screenplay with him) and in such roles as Rufus the 13th Apostle in Kevin Smith's irreverent take on religion, "Dogma."

So the character who was a boxer in "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and a football quarterback in "Heaven Can Wait" becomes an aspiring comedian in "Down to Earth." Alas, Lance Burton (Rock) isn't very good telling jokes in front of an audience. As for his day job as a bicycle messenger, he gets distracted one day looking at a beautiful woman and rides directly into the path of a very large truck.

But when the Grim Reaper is represented by that divine movie nerd Eugene Levy, you know something will go wrong. Lance wasn't supposed to die yet, but the mistake is not discovered until he is in heaven, which directors Chris and Paul Weitz depict as a giant nightclub (wasn't it located on Sixth Street in Pittsburgh?) run by Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri), who could be a refugee from Frank Sinatra's posse.

So Lance must return to Earth in a new body belonging to someone who is about to die. He becomes Charles Wellington, a 60ish business tycoon with a fabulous apartment and a sexy wife (Jennifer Coolidge) who has just tried to kill him. But Lance is more interested in that girl he saw just before the truck hit. Alas, Sontee (Regina King) would like to kill him, too, at least metaphorically, for trying to make a profit on the backs of poor people.

The real joke is that Lance, who is young and black, finds himself in the body of Wellington, who is older and white. Suddenly, to the puzzlement of his family and associates, the hard-nosed businessman develops a taste for hip-hop music, an obsession with standup comedy and a love jones for Sontee.

It gets complicated. Everyone in the movie sees Wellington, but those of us in the audience see Chris Rock. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the other characters -- especially Sontee, whom he keeps trying to date -- are interacting with a fat, aged white guy.

But the gag ultimately pays off in several ways. We are allowed to see Wellington in scenes where he tells jokes and raps words that a black man could get away with but a white man uses at his peril in mixed company. Other scenes allow Rock to do what he does best, both as a standup comic and in a scene where he meets Wellington's opponents and disarms them with social criticism that sounds like self-deprecating humor, as if the old man were developing a corporate conscience.

The racial comedy fuels but doesn't overpower the film, which sticks close to the structural blueprint of "Heaven Can Wait" ("Down to Earth" cites Beatty and co-writer Elaine May in the credits). The Weitzes, best known for the infamously funny teen sex comedy "American Pie," prove they can make a humorous film without pastry. Rock shows he can front a PG-13 romantic comedy requiring him to be good-hearted and relatively clean-mouthed.

"Down to Earth" says tolerance runs both ways and that race, age, class and body size don't have to divide us. Spike Lee might not agree, but cynical Hollywood almost always tries to sell the fantasy. Most audiences are happy to buy it. That's why studios will always keep remaking this kind of movie.

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