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by: Michael Dequina

There's no denying that Chris Rock is a funny man. On the stand-up stage, he blazes, eliciting many a large laugh with his fierce mix of rage and joy. But one thing few would ever say about Rock is that he's a great actor. This is not to say that he's an especially bad one, for he has been effective in small roles in Dogma and Nurse Betty. It's just that one doesn't exactly equate "lead movie star" with him, and his flat starring vehicle Down to Earth doesn't do anything to change that perception.

Part of the problem is that he is never quite able to completely shake off his stand-up persona. Granted, on screen he displays the same charismatic presence he has on stage, but the barking line delivery and cadences of his stand-up delivery also carry over, which makes it difficult to separate Rock from the character he's supposed to be playing. Down to Earth, a remake of 1978's Heaven Can Wait (which itself was a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan), makes an obvious attempt to ease the transition by casting Rock as Lance Barton, a stand-up comic. This, however, just makes matters worse; whenever Lance takes the stage and does his act, we see Rock (who happened to co-write the script and recycle some of his own material), not the character of Lance.

The plot, as it is, has struggling stand-up Lance suffering an untimely death in a traffic accident; apparently, this was a mistake, so an angel named King (Chazz Palminteri) quickly gives Lance another body--which, unfortunately, is that of just-deceased billionaire Charles Wellington. Lance negotiates this to be a temporary arrangement, but he has second thoughts when he meets activist Sontee (Regina King), whom Lance manages to successfully woo while in the body of the much-older white man.

Rock and King manage to generate some charm together, but their romance is often lost amid easy fish-out-of-body jokes (there is not only one, but two, scenes of Lance bumping to rap music, forgetting he's in the form of a portly old white man) and boring subplots, in particular one revolving around Wellington's scheming wife (Jennifer Saunders) and her lover (Greg Germann), who also happens to be Wellington's right-hand man.

Down to Earth was directed by Chris and Paul Weitz, but this film doesn't display any of the antic spirit of their last film, American Pie--not even during the stand-up sequences that should be comic high points. But just at fault, if not more, is Rock, who fashioned a less-than-ideal project for himself. When someone wants to see a Chris Rock comedy, one wants to see him R-rated unleashed--not so much in terms of profanity than his intelligently biting adult humor. In Down to Earth, not only has his edge been smoothed over, so has his smarts.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)


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