It could be argued that the trajectory of increasing coarseness in American culture over the past six decades can be traced in the depiction of the caretakers of the hereafter in the successive filmizations of Harry Segall’s play “Halfway to Heaven.” In the first version, “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1941), the smooth, unflappable Claude Rains played the overseer of paradise, and Edward Everett Horton, the very image of the flustered butler, his harried assistant, who set the plot in motion by whisking away the hero’s soul before its appointed time and forcing his boss to provide a “loner” body to the not-quite-deceased. In Warren Beatty’s remake, the 1978 “Heaven Can Wait” (a title appropriated from an unrelated Ernst Lubitsch picture from 1943), the character of Mr. Jordan was essayed by James Mason–again the very image of cool, serene detachment–and his hapless aide by Buck Henry, the perfect embodiment of an officious, seventies-style corporation guy. The latest adaptation features Chazz Palminteri, dressed like a Vegas-style lounge lizard, as the Jordan figure (though the name’s now King); Eugene Levy, as his sidekick, wears outrageously tacky sportscoats and comes across as a second cousin to the smarmy car salesman he so memorably played in the original “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Not to disparage Palminteri and Levy, who are funny guys able to wring a smile even from mediocre material, but it seems safe to say that their presence indicates that the makers of this third go-around weren’t opting for the same level of elegance and sophistication the characters had in the earlier versions.
The choice is characteristic of “Down to Earth,” which recasts the story as a starring vehicle for Chris Rock and boasts far crasser humor than the previous flicks did. In this reworking, the hero is obviously African-American rather than white, and he’s an aspiring stand-up comic named Lance Barton rather than a sports figure (a boxer in the 1941 film, a football player in the 1978 remake). The alteration essentially allows Rock to play himself and do some of his stage routines. It also permits the script to highlight differences between black and white culture in America, as well as the class and social distinctions which were the main butt of the jokes in the earlier versions. The result is sometimes pretty funny, as when we briefly glimpse a fat old white dude delivering riffs before an African-American audience or gyrating to rap music–to the consternation of those who see and hear him. (Usually we’re shown Rock pretending to be in his new “white” body, but occasionally we view his new “white” body from the perspective of others.)
While the picture is punctuated by some big laughs, though, it’s not consistently entertaining; a good deal of the running-time consists of relative dead spots, either laboriously explaining the plot (the rules of which are never made fully clear) or offering less-than-stellar bits. Part of the problem is that Rock is simply too much of a single-note performer to generate the charm his character needs over the long haul. He doesn’t act so much as he rants, and though he usually does so with a big smile, his stiffness eventually grows wearying, even over a mere 85 minutes. He hasn’t been aided by the direction of Chris and Paul Weitz (“American Pie”), which could most charitably be described as workmanlike. Nor is the supporting cast terribly strong. Palminteri and Levy are okay, though their material is hardly inspired, and Frankie Faison (Hannibal Lecter’s onetime guard in “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal”) is a comfortable presence as Barton’s old manager. But Regina King is disappointingly bland as the girl Barton woos in his new incarnation, and Greg Germann and Jennifer Coolidge overdo things brutally as the “new” Barton’s duplicitous aide and wife. (Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin had real fun with these roles in the Beatty version.) Mark Addy gets a few smiles as Barton’s faux British butler, but Wanda Sykes, as the inevitably sharp-tongued maid, is little more than a caricature. From the technical perspective the movie isn’t much better than okay. Perhaps it will look better on video.
“Down to Earth” is hardly as bad as one might have expected; it’s far more pleasant than the run of “Saturday Night Live” features that Paramount has inflicted on us in recent years, and Rock and his co-writers have come up with some sharp lines and amusing bits. But the level of invention varies from moment to moment, and long stretches of the picture are flat and undisciplined. Maybe we’ve just seen this plot once too often for it to make much of an impression anymore. Incidentally, calling this picture “Down to Earth” only adds to the confusion attached to the tale, because there was already a sequel to “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” a 1947 musical, which was titled “Down to Earth.” This new “Down to Earth,” however, has nothing in common with that one, being based on its predecessor (or, if you believe the credits, on the screenplay by Warren Beatty and Elaine May for the 1978 remake, titled “Heaven Can Wait” but unrelated to the 1943 picture of the same name). Meanwhile, the title of Segall’s original play, “Halfway to Heaven,” has never been used for a movie. Go figure.