Lance Barton, thin as paper and frail as fine china, is such a horrific stand-up that, during an amateur-night performance at the Apollo Theater, he is booed with so much force -- the audience whips up its own whirlwind -- he's literally knocked off the stage. Lance's manager insists he's a failure because he's afraid of being himself: Lance is funny off-stage, but slow and awkward in front of the audience; the crowd smells his fear and devours him like a shark chewing chum. Because of that, Lance will never land the gig of a lifetime: a slot on the final amateur-night contest at the Apollo, which is being torn down to make room for a mini-mall. His career is over before it begins.
Problem is, Lance looks very much like Chris Rock, and he even swipes much of Rock's material, found on his 1999 album and HBO special Bigger & Blacker ("Every town's got two malls -- the mall white people go to and the mall white people used to go to"). This resemblance is the first but not the only problem with Down to Earth: It asks us to believe one of the funniest men alive can't coax a single laugh out of an audience that's amped up to giggle at the slightest joke -- though, as it turns out, this isn't much of a dilemma at all. Down to Earth, penned by Rock and a handful of his pals, is such an utter disaster, it seems to go out of its way to avoid comedy. It's the very definition of oxymoron: a crowd-pleaser that doesn't.
Down to Earth, directed by American Pie's co-conspirators Chris and Paul Weitz, feels just like what it is: used goods worn so threadbare, it barely hangs together at all. It's a copy of a copy, a remake of 1978's Heaven Can Wait, which itself was a redo of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was based on Harry Segall's play; even the "new" version's title has been swiped from the 1947 "sequel" to Mr. Jordan, the turgid Down to Earth, which starred Rita Hayworth. Nothing about this new Down to Earth is original, save for its clumsy attempts to inject issues of race into its fairy tale about a dead man (Lance) yanked prematurely from his own body and plopped gracelessly into the corpse of another (a white Park Avenue fat cat named Charles Wellington). There is no difference between seeing or skipping Down to Earth. Simply put, it could never surprise you.
The Weitz brothers and Rock have hacked out a third-generation reproduction, altering names (Joe Pendleton becomes Lance Barton; Mr. Jordan, heaven's doorman, becomes Mr. King; and so forth) and occupations (where Joe was an athlete, Lance is a comedian) and settings (New York replaces Los Angeles) without modifying the outline. Even so, they've somehow managed to dumb down (and, in one place, sleaze up) the sweet, simple tale. As the woman who loves Lance, even though he's trapped in the body of a tubby, middle-aged white man, Sontee (Regina King, in the Julie Christie role as an activist trying to save a hospital from Wellington's wrecking ball) repeatedly insists, "There's something about your eyes." In Heaven Can Wait, Christie merely stared into Warren Beatty's baby blues, suggesting she knew who he really was beneath his borrowed exterior; here, King beats the audience over the head as though it were a misbehaving puppy. We got it, already: She knows this rich white dude she's in love with is really a happening, with-it brother. How? He knows all the words to Snoop Dog's "Gin and Juice" and DMX's "Ruff Ryders' Anthem."
Rock seems disinterested, as though writing the film so exhausted him he could barely muster the energy to perform in it. He breezes through the stand-up (when he busts out the old material, it's like watching Billy Joel run lifelessly through "Piano Man" for the millionth time) and trips ass-backward as Lance/Wellington. Rock's never been much of an actor (in Dogma and Nurse Betty, he yells his lines as though he's still trying to reach the back row), but here he has confused playing "sincere" with playing "straight"; every time he opens his mouth off the stand-up's stage, it's as though he's just learned the language.
As Mr. King, who runs heaven as the most exclusive nightclub in the universe ("Look, there's Pac," Lance gushes upon gaining entrance), Chazz Palminteri can't decide whether to play tough or sleazy, so he does neither; he mumbles, like someone who can't quite remember all his lines. Eugene Levy's Mr. Keyes is nothing more than a simpering buffoon who simply believes he was doing Lance a favor by snatching him out of harm's way. Frankie Faison, as Lance's manager Whitney, disappears for such a long stretch, you're tempted to think Rock forgot about him altogether. Like passion, he's an afterthought in this movie.
But the worst bit of casting is Greg Germann (of Ally McBeal) and Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler's mom, from American Pie) as the schemers out to off Wellington. They're smarmy and stupid -- and inexplicably benign. Maybe that's because Rock felt it necessary to redeem Mrs. Wellington's character, who, as in Heaven Can Wait, keeps trying to murder her husband. (Down to Earth, in the end, is like nothing more than a muted version of Heaven Can Wait: Everyone's nicer . . . and dumber.) Coolidge is just a high-class tramp in an ill-fitting silk nightgown, and after her one attempt to kill Wellington fails -- when Lance first takes over his body -- she gives up her murderous plan, and when her husband starts breaking out the rap lyrics, she suddenly decides it's her duty to please that booty; she even goes so far as to lure another woman (yech, just barely) into bed, hoping to fulfill her husband's three-way fantasy. Germann, as the right-hand man carrying a knife in his left, has no presence at all.
Worst of all, the entire film displays an unpalatable cowardice: It's a comedy about race that doesn't have the balls or brains to actually deal with the subject. We never understand why, as Wellington, Lance is funny. (In Heaven Can Wait, the audience never sees the borrowed body; here, we're given occasional glimpses of Wellington, though the actor who plays him is never mentioned in the press notes -- as if he doesn't exist.) As Lance, Rock's a stuttering, sputtering performer; he trips over his own punch lines, when he has them at all. (That's the film's biggest twist: Joe Pendleton was a star about to play in the Super Bowl; Lance is a third-stringer likely to remain on the comedy-club bench.) But as Wellington, Lance kills -- to the point he lands the Apollo gig Lance so desperately covets, though, inevitably, he must trade Wellington's body for yet another, which so happens to be one of the brothers on the Apollo bill that very night. (Please, like it's a surprise?)
The filmmakers have no problem showing us Wellington, but we never hear him, which mutes the joke; it's still Chris Rock shouting Chris Rock's material. The joke never comes off, especially when we see Wellington rapping along to DMX ("Niggaz wanna try, niggaz wanna lie/Then niggaz wonder why, niggaz wanna die") in a fast-food joint, but hear it in Rock's voice. We're never allowed to buy into the movie's premise -- that skin color doesn't matter, as long as there's soul beneath the surface -- because the filmmakers don't go far enough. They pull up lame, so when Sontee and Lance finally kiss, we don't buy it: She's making out with Chris Rock, not some white dude. There's no shock and no meaning; it's just a kiss, as empty and hollow as most in movies. Theirs is a romance, just as this is a movie, without any heart. Or soul.