Down to Earth

Down to Earth, Chris Rock’s
remake (directed by Chris and Paul Weitz) of Heaven Can Wait
(1978)—itself a remake of Here
Comes Mr. Jordan
(1941)—is a
disappointment. Though there are some very funny things in it, its glib message
about being oneself turns out to be a cover for being self-indulgent, in the
style (I’m afraid) of so many younger
artists these days. As you might expect, the film has a number of brilliant
jokes, but no discipline, no narrative continuity, no attempt at creating and
sustaining a plausible situation on screen that would make us care very much
about the characters involved in the story of a love that reaches beyond death,
which is the film’s ostensible
subject. In fact, the all-importance of striking the
attitude that seems to be necessary for the appeal to a mainly black and hip
young white audience makes the love story, such as it is, seem a mere sideline.
Our hero just picks up the same chick in two different lives.

There is also something that
doesn’t quite work right in the
transformation of this person, one Lance Barton (Mr. Rock), from a boxer (in the
1941 film) or a football quarterback (in the 1978 version) to a comedian. Part
of the point of putting the hero in that all-male context in the earlier films
was to point the contrast between his masculine striving, and failure, in a
public and competitive arena and the love, associated with the private and the
feminine, that sustains him through it—and, ultimately, through death
itself. It’s very un-politically
correct of course, but the story has the power of
archetype—a power which does not
survive the translation of the arena of the
hero’s strivings to a comedy
competition. Of course we wish him well in his efforts to ingratiate himself
with the audience, but they somehow
don’t have that mythic overtone that
sporting combat has.

Nor is there any attempt to exploit the mythic potentiality of the heavenly
setting. An oily Chazz Palminteri in a blue satin dinner jacket is the
maître d’ of the
heavenly night club (where “the fun
never stops” ) and the nearest we get
to mystery is the mystery of why such a self-consciously cool guy would employ a
nerdy screw-up like Keyes (Eugene Levy) to do his body-snatching for him. You
would think that some sense of awe and grandeur would be a minimum requirement
for any representation of the afterlife, but there is about this film something
of the same failure of the imagination that made such a mess of Dogma, in
which Mr Rock played an angel. In neither picture is there so much as a glimmer
of an understanding on the part of the filmmakers that either the saints, the
angels or God himself are any different than they are, or the world over which
the heavenly hosts preside any different from their own.

Of course if you think it’s
funny to think of heaven as a night club and its gatekeeper as a not
particularly tough maître
, then you
won’t mind about this.

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