Pulling Punch Lines 

Chris Rock, comic genius, falls Down to Earth. 

In his stand-up comedy, Chris Rock deals in straight exaggeration—in caricatures, not characters. It’s a delivery that renounces subtlety and refinement. Instead, Rock basically shouts his routines in a constant state of inflamed skepticism. This approach, when it’s combined with his brilliant material, actually makes for superior stand-up, a mix of ferociously articulate social satire and self-mocking meta-comedy. In other words, Rock is both smart and weird.

This all makes Rock arguably the best comedian in America, as well as a curiously important cultural figure. It does not, however, make him an actor. In fact, it makes him something like the opposite of an actor. He does not produce lifelike gestures and emotions. He mutilates them for his own expository and comic purposes. Instead of a shifting repertoire of faces, he is a single unmistakable voice.

One can imagine a movie role that would suit him, a wisecracking sidekick, perhaps, or a one-man Greek chorus. But even here the evidence is sketchy. In Nurse Betty, next to a real actor like Morgan Freeman, Rock’s high-pitched line readings came off as grating and ill-timed. It is almost impossible, though, to imagine him in one of those saccharine shaggy dog stories that other Saturday Night Live alums have come to specialize in. It is more difficult still to believe that the stellar writing team from his HBO show, including the very funny and even weirder stand-up comedian Louis C.K., would join him to create such a movie. Or that Chris and Paul Weitz, who were behind the vigorously lewd American Pie, would be at the helm for such a debacle.

The reincarnation comedy Down to Earth forces us to confront this grim unlikelihood. Time magazine’s “funniest man in America” and the brain trust of his whip-smart comedy show have teamed up with the gifted co-directors of the most anarchic teen farce in memory to remake the sublime Heaven Can Wait (1978) as a below-average Adam Sandler movie: The Wedding Singer Brought Back to Live at the Apollo.                 

In Down to Earth, Rock plays Lance Barton, a bike messenger and struggling comedian who is love-struck by the fetching Sontee (Regina King) at the same moment he’s truck-struck in a Manhattan intersection. He finds himself in the velvet rope line to heaven but, as in Heaven Can Wait (and its predecessor, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, 1941), he learns that he was taken prematurely by a fidgety angel (Eugene Levy). His scheduled death isn’t for another 40 years, and so he’s given the option of moving into another body as compensation for the heavenly error. The body he takes is that of the rich, fat, white Mr. Wellington, who has earned a bad reputation in one Brooklyn neighborhood for buying and threatening to shut down its public hospital. No sooner does Lance’s soul emerge from Wellington’s bathtub, in Wellington’s body, than Sontee appears in his vast apartment and, protesting for the hospital, handcuffs herself to a table. The apple of Lance’s transparent eyeball, it turns out, is the hospital’s advocate and, thus, Wellington’s sworn enemy. Toting around Wellington’s unsightly girth as well as his moral baggage, Lance must undo the old man’s heartless deeds, speak to Sontee’s soul with his own, and restart his comedy career as a white guy doing his old “black” material.

The movie seems designed to examine not only the themes in Rock’s stand-up comedy but also the controversy he’s generated. His first HBO special, Bring the Pain, drew criticism from some black leaders for an outrageously candid routine featuring the couplet, “I love black people … but I hate niggers.” Rock was accused of abetting racists with this blunt taxonomy. Even aside from that infamous bit, Rock’s candor repeatedly raises the question of how the identity of the person speaking affects the propriety of what is said, whether one person’s home truths are another’s racist insults. The only conceivable reason to make a movie in which the “soul” of Chris Rock comes back as a rich white guy suddenly taken with the urge to do “black” stand-up comedy is to probe the ironies attached to this question.

In placing Lance/Wellington on stage in a Harlem comedy club, Down to Earth looks poised to do just that, but it makes a glaring mistake. Instead of showing us the white Wellington standing before a stunned black audience, the Weitzes show us plain old Lance, looking and sounding like plain old Chris Rock, doing material that the real Chris Rock wouldn’t be caught dead with. The scene is both more abstract and less weird than it should be. The comedy falls flat, and the underlying point about identity and moral perspective goes unmade. We are forced to imagine that it’s an old white guy doing those black jokes in Harlem, but we’re spared the edifying discomfort of actually watching this happen.

The same mistake haunts the romance between Lance/Wellington and Sontee. Down to Earth has the perfect chance to lampoon the insulting romantic conventions of recent movies by other SNL alums such as Sandler, David Spade, and Chris Farley, in which a repulsive, emasculated, or obese man wins the affections of an innocent beauty through some heartwarming combination of stalking and lying. It would have been explosively strange and funny to see the curvy, sexy, brown-skinned Sontee engaged in love talk and playful smooching with the pale, fat, plainly hideous Wellington. But we just see Regina King and Chris Rock kissing unremarkably on a Brooklyn stoop. People as sharp as Rock, C.K., and the Weitz brothers must realize that their movie’s message of soul-love is fatally undermined by their reliance on a body double.

The makers of Down to Earth were faced with a dilemma nobody would have anticipated: Boosting their star’s screen time kills the comedy. They could plug Rock into enough of the Lance/Wellington scenes to market the movie as a Chris Rock vehicle or, leaving Rock out of crucial scenes, allow it to be as funny as its premise allowed. Forced to decide between a movie and a movie poster, they went with the poster.